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What The End Of 32-Bit Support In iOS 11 Really Means

Most iOS apps are ready for the end of 32-bit support, but some beloved ones are falling through the cracks.

What The End Of 32-Bit Support In iOS 11 Really Means

For years, Eddy Boxerman thought his company’s critically acclaimed iOS game Osmos would never need another update. He wasn’t even sure if a new version would be feasible, because the game’s unorthodox multiplayer code no longer worked with Apple’s newer development tools.

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But Boxerman realized he had to try. With the launch of iOS 11 in the fall, Apple will require all apps to support 64-bit architecture, which debuted on the iPhone 5S, iPad Air, and iPad Mini 2 in late 2013. Apps that run on Apple’s older 32-bit architecture will cease to function in iOS 11, and won’t appear in App Store search results on devices running the new operating system. (It’s unclear if Apple will purge them from the store entirely.) By forcing the 64-bit upgrade, Apple can ensure better performance on existing iOS apps today, and may be able to free up hardware resources in the future by dropping 32-bit support from its processors.

Instead of letting Osmos vanish from the App Store, Boxerman spent over three months updating his code to support iOS 11, rewriting the game’s multiplayer system in the process. Although Osmos doesn’t sell at the same rate as when it won Apple’s iPad Game of the Year award in 2010, Boxerman figures his work will pay off with a few more years of slow and steady sales.

“In terms of a gamble, it seemed reasonable, and worth doing,” he says. “And I didn’t want to see the game just disappear off iOS.”

Not all iOS developers will reach the same conclusion. While several analytics firms say the vast majority of apps are ready for iOS 11, some developers will inevitably decide that their code isn’t worth updating, especially if outdated elements have built up over the years. As Apple prepares for the future of iOS, some beloved games and apps will fall through the cracks.

The Big Picture

App makers have been getting more serious about updating their software as the launch of iOS 11 gets closer, says Randy Nelson, the head of mobile insights at app analytics firm SensorTower. He estimates that over the past six months, 64-bit updates have increased by 228% compared to the prior six months, and notes that the rate of updates spiked in June, when Apple confirmed its plans to discontinue 32-bit app support.

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But based on data from app analytics firm Appfigures, anywhere from 2% to 19% of the App Store catalog could still be incompatible with Apple’s next software update.

The stragglers include roughly 45,000 apps that haven’t been updated since May 2012, when Apple started supporting 64-bit iOS software. An additional 425,000 apps haven’t been updated since June 2015, when Apple started requiring all new apps and app updates to include 64-bit support. That adds up to 470,000 apps at risk; as for the quantity that won’t ever go 64-bit, “I’d make an educated guess and place the number at around 200,000 to 250,000 apps, based on upgrade patterns,” says Ariel Michaeli, Appfigures’ founder and CEO.

From the data alone, it’s hard to find notable examples of apps that are going away. Michaeli says that around 30% of the 470,000 apps he looked at are games, the most popular of which have either been replaced by newer versions or are mere copycats that piggybacked their way to brief App Store success. And in a list of 75 outdated apps with at least at least 100,000 user ratings, only one–Epic Games’ original Infinity Blade–caught my eye as a profound loss. (Epic did not respond to a request for comment.)

Lots Of Little Losses

Those aggregate stats may sound comforting, but they do paint over individual examples of software that might be worth saving. Just looking through my third-generation iPad, for instance, reveals quite a few noteworthy apps that are still incompatible with iOS 11.

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These include neglected games from major studios, such as Id Software’s port of Doom and its iOS adaptation of Rage, and indie gems like Vectorpark’s Levers. The losses aren’t limited to games, either. Music-creation tools like iSequence HD and Tachyon (the latter developed by Dream Theater keyboardist Jordan Rudess) are also on the chopping block.

iSequence HD

None of those developers responded to my requests for comment, but it’s easy to understand why some app makers might shy away from updating their code. For independent developers, the requisite weeks or months of work just isn’t feasible for an app that isn’t selling. And for larger companies, even a steady trickle of sales may not merit pulling resources away from other projects.

In those circumstances, some have called for Apple to do more than just set deadlines. Adam Ghahramani, an independent product and marketing producer, wrote on VentureBeat recently that Apple should create incentives (such as App Store advertising credits) for legacy app upgrades, or at least find a way to preserve outdated apps that have historical value.

“To do otherwise and let almost 200,000 digital artifacts disappear wouldn’t just be tragic for so many Apple customers and developers, it would create a cultural black hole for generations to come,” Ghahramani wrote.

Anatomy Of An Update

In theory, updating an iOS app for 64-bit devices shouldn’t be too burdensome. Mark Price, an iOS instructor at the online learning site Udemy, says that Apple’s Xcode developer software makes conversion easy in many cases. As an experiment, he attempted to convert several open-source apps from the code-hosting site GitHub and encountered no issues.

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“There are some instances where certain libraries are using outdated technology, so … you might have to get rid of that because it would have compiler errors,” Price says. “But if it’s using base frameworks from iOS, it’ll just work nicely in most cases.”

That was the case, at least, for Adam Saltsman, creator of the hit iOS game Canabalt. In his initial email to me, Saltsman practically winced at the prospect of working through incompatibilities in his code, and dealing with potential App Store review uncertainties. But a week later, everything had gone smoother than expected. By creating an Apple TV version of Canabalt a couple of years ago, Saltsman inadvertently resolved most of the issues he might have run into adding iOS 11 support.

“Everything here was shipshape from the Apple TV port,” Saltsman said in an email. “The whole thing took about three hours somehow! A pleasant surprise.”

Things don’t always go smoothly. Boxerman says he didn’t expect to spend upwards of three months adding 64-bit support to Osmos, but then he kept running into new roadblocks that he hadn’t anticipated, particularly with overhauling his multiplayer code.

“It just kept cascading. You think you’re almost there, and you think you’re almost there,” he says. “I definitely had several moments at least during that time that I was like, ‘Maybe I should just axe multiplayer entirely.'”

Osmos

Even after creating a new multiplayer system, Boxerman spent over a month modernizing the rest of his code for iOS 11. Because Apple had deprecated significant portions of its GameCenter network since the last Osmos update in 2013, Boxerman had to redesign some social aspects of his app. The 64-bit transition also required several weeks of squashing bugs related to memory alignment.

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“How long it takes you to diagnose the problem really depends on your familiarity with these issues, and familiarity with your code as well,” Boxerman says.

For reasons beyond profit potential, Boxerman doesn’t regret how much time he put into the update. He’s enjoyed seeing “thank you” reviews from players, and because of a tweak that lets users play single-player games while searching for competitive matches, he believes the multiplayer component on his eight-year-old game has been to some extent resurrected.

Still, he’s unsure whether he would have upgraded if the game wasn’t still generating steady sales.

“If Osmos revenue was like, a couple of sales a day, like five bucks a day, 10 bucks a day, I probably would have been like, ‘This is really tough to justify,'” he says.

About the author

Jared Newman covers apps and technology for Fast Company from his remote outpost in Cincinnati. He also writes for PCWorld and TechHive, and previously wrote for Time.com.

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