Apple will launch an invite-only public beta of iOS 8.3 next month, then expand the program this summer with iOS 9, according to online reports.
The public preview -- Apple's first for iOS -- will follow the debut of a similar program last year for OS X Yosemite, the Mac operating system.
"With a public preview, you get much broader and thorough testing," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research. "Problems with early versions of iOS show that Apple needs this, that they can't rely on internal and private testing before general availability."
According to 9to5Mac.com, Apple will use its invitation-only AppleSeed program to publicly offer iOS 8.3 starting in mid-March. Registered Apple developers have had access to a preliminary version of iOS 8.3 for two weeks.
AppleSeed is not currently taking new participant requests, Apple stated on the program's FAQ page.
After Apple introduces iOS 9 at its annual developer conference in June -- a now-standard practice -- the Cupertino, Calif. company will expand the beta to the general public. 9to5Mac.com said that Apple would restrict the iOS 9 public preview to 100,000 customers.
That two-step process would mimic last year's introduction of the first OS X public beta since 2000.
In April 2014, Apple kicked off a public preview of the then-current OS X Mavericks with a sneak peek at version 10.9.3, an impending update to Mavericks. Two months later, Apple executive Craig Federighi announced a public beta of OS X Yosemite, Mavericks' successor, from the stage at Apple's WWDC (Worldwide Developer Conference).
Apple limited the Yosemite public beta to a million users.
"More eyeballs," said Gottheil when asked what Apple hoped to achieve with the iOS beta.
Apple could use those extra eyes: Almost invariably, the initial version of an iOS edition requires quick bug quashing. Last year, for example, Apple issued its first update to iOS 8 just one week after the official launch, but then pulled the update almost immediately after reports flooded social media and the company's own support forum that customers' iPhone 6 and 6 Plus smartphones couldn't connect to a cellular network.
iPhone owners quickly lashed out at Apple, with some excoriating the company for not testing the flawed iOS 8.0.1 update.
Gottheil also mentioned software quality, and brought up the discussion last month about a perceived slump at Apple, one that other analysts also echoed. "Some of the software [development] discipline has relaxed," Gottheil argued. In theory, a public preview should catch the most egregious bugs before the mobile operating system is more broadly released.
The success of the OS X Yosemite public preview -- even though that OS was also criticized for containing bugs -- likely emboldened Apple to dive into the far more popular iOS, said Gottheil.
"But given the nature of automatic updates, this is really more a matter of setting expectations and communicating the state of the product than a change in the process," said Gottheil, referring to the idea -- accepted by some, rejected by others -- that software is always a work in progress.
"With a public beta, Apple can do what they did with Siri, say 'This is not a finished product, software is not 100% bug-free,'" said Gottheil. "They can say, 'We told you,' when problems crop up."
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