When Apple's Iron Fisted Control Backfires Users Suffer

Apple released an update for Find My iPhone on Thursday that updated the app's icon, but also temporarily blocked access to its features unless you had an Apple Developer Account. The issue was fixed relatively quickly, but it highlighted why the soon to be released iOS 7 needs a way for users to prevent some apps from auto-updating.

Apple accidentally broke Find My iPhone. iOS 7 doesn't let us avoid bad app updates.Apple accidentally broke Find My iPhone. iOS 7 doesn't let us avoid bad app updates.

Find My iPhone lets users track the location of their iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch, send alerts and messages to their devices, and to disable them if they're lost or stolen.

According to Apple, the update included bug fixes along with the redesigned app icon. What slipped through along with that, however, was a flaw that required a free or paid developer account to use any of the app's features, indicating that Apple probably released the update earlier than it should have.

The issue was fixed before the end of the day, but there was a window of time where Find My iPhone was a useless app for most iOS device owners, and that underscores a problem with one of the new features in iOS 7: automatic app updates. There isn't any way to disable the feature so anyone that needs to use an older version of an app, or avoid major bugs that slip through, is out of luck.

The idea of automatic updates is appealing because it seems we have to make several trips a day to the App Store app just to keep up with all of the app changes. Letting those updates install in the background without requiring any action on our part is a big time saver. Where that falls apart, however, is when an app update slips through with a major flaw, just like Find My iPhone.

Apple screens apps before they're available on the App Store, and that includes app updates. If Apple can miss something as big as one of their own apps failing to work at all after an update, it's pretty clear the company isn't looking that closely during the screening process. That means it's up to us, the end users, to police our app updates -- and that's not possible in iOS 7.

Apple said iOS 7 is coming this fall. Most likely that means some time in September when new iPhone models are expected to ship. That gives Apple only a few weeks to add settings for controlling app auto-updates, which means we most likely won't have that option when iOS 7 is released.

Limiting options is a standard operating procedure at Apple, and sometimes that's a good thing. When those limits can potentially leave us helpless when something goes wrong, like yesterday's Find My iPhone update, it's time to rethink that philosophy for at least some of iOS 7's features.

The time saved through the auto-update feature may be significant, but maybe it isn't worth the price in this case. Sometimes giving us more options really is better. The trick is balancing that with making features too complicated, and hopefully that's something Apple can work out before users get burned again.

Update: Thanks to some helpful insiders, I found out I was misinformed and that iOS 7 does, in fact, have a way to disable App Store auto-updates. You can find the preference by tapping Settings, then iTunes & App Store. The setting, appropriately enough, is called Updates.

The auto-update setting is on by default, and I'm OK with that. I'm betting most iOS device users will want auto-updates to happen, but for those that don't, it's nice to know the option is there. Maybe this is a step in the right direction for Apple and we'll get the option to control more of how iOS works for us.