Apple today releases iOS and iPadOS 15 to the public, following the announcement at WWDC earlier this year and the usual public beta period. The new software will run on any iPhone and iPad that can run iOS or iPadOS 14, all the way back to iPad Air 2 from 2014 and iPhone 6S and 6S Plus from 2015.
Normally this would mean the end of iOS 14. If Apple were to patch a major zero-day security vulnerability in iOS next week, you’d have to move to iOS 15 in years past to get the fix whether you wanted the rest of its features or not. But as of this year, that is not the case. For the first time ever, if you want to delay the iOS 15 update for a few weeks or months, you can do so without missing out on important security updates. This is because Apple plans to continue with updates to iOS 14, not just for legacy devices, but for any phone or tablet running iOS 14 or iPadOS 14.
This update policy change brings iOS and iPadOS closer to macOS. Apple provides feature updates for the latest macOS release and major security updates for the two previous macOS versions, for a total of three macOS releases at a time. Apple doesn’t commit to the same policies with iOS (and the macOS policies aren’t described anywhere, as Microsoft does for its software releases), but security updates for even one other version of iOS is an improvement.
There are plenty of reasons why you might not want to install an x.0 version of a new OS on the day it comes out. Apple’s major software updates are usually tied to its fixed September launch window for new iPhones, and early versions may contain major bugs that Apple couldn’t fix until it was time to ship the software. You may be concerned about the performance of new software on your old device (although it’s been years since a new version of iOS made older devices feel unbearably slow, which is one reason we don’t test iOS 15 on old devices like we usually do). Or you may want to wait for the apps you rely on to update for the new OS, just in case one of Apple’s changes breaks key functionality.
This policy change also extends the life of devices that cannot be upgraded to the latest version of iOS or iPadOS. You may not have realized it, but for the past two years Apple has quietly only released security updates to iOS 12 for the iPhone 5S, iPad Air, and iPad mini 2 from 2013, as well as the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus from 2014. None of these devices made it to iOS 13, but people who didn’t have to or couldn’t afford to buy a new device could continue to use them without worrying about core functionality breaking or putting their data at additional risk. It’s a responsible move from a company that has offered more software support than the best Android phone makers for years.
We’ll see if this affects the adoption rate of new iOS versions and how aggressively Apple tries to get people to upgrade from iOS 14 to iOS 15 over time. On the Mac, the first update offered to you is on old versions of macOS the upgrade to the next version, provided your Mac supports it. You have to click on an “other updates” button to see the security updates available for Mojave or Catalina.
Ultimately, if you can install iOS 15, you probably want to. There are always some features worth upgrading, be it FaceTime screen sharing, iPad home screen widgets, or even new emoji. And you won’t be able to use iOS 14 forever; Apple will eventually stop updating it, and third-party apps may no longer support it either, as their developers’ focus shifts to iOS 15 and newer releases. It’s just nice to have the option to wait a while if you want to skip the bugs and teething problems that come with most brand new operating systems.