You probably know that updating your mobile operating system provides you with new features, enhancements and improvements, bug fixes and important security patches and updates. But do you know what the different types of mobile operating systems are, how to keep them up-to-date, and most importantly, how to avoid using up your monthly mobile data allowance in the process?
What is a mobile OS?
The mobile operating system, also known as a ‘mobile OS’, is the most important piece of software that runs on your device. It’s responsible for identifying and defining your mobile device’s features and functions, including keypads, application synchronisation, email, thumbwheel and text messaging. It also manages your mobile and wireless network connectivity.
A mobile OS is similar to the standard OS used in personal computers (such as Windows, Linux or Mac). It primarily manages wireless local and broadband connections, mobile multimedia and the various input methods used on a device (such as voice, touch or keyboard).
What are the different types of mobile OS?
In general terms, a mobile OS is either closed source or open source. A closed source mobile OS is owned and controlled by a company (for example, Apple) and there are restrictions on what can be done with it. A open source mobile OS is publicly available to anyone and can be freely used, modified and shared.
There are two main types of mobile OS:
- Apple iOS—runs iPhones, iPads and iPods. This is a closed source mobile OS and isn’t allowed to be used in third-party systems. It can only be used in products made by Apple. Since 2007 when iOS 1 was released, there has been a major OS update released each year. The most recent (initial) OS release is iOS 9. Following an initial OS release, there are typically a number of minor releases, with iOS 9.3.2 the most recent.
- Android OS—this is an open source mobile OS used by a variety of smartphones. Android OS also began in 2007 with the release of various Android milestone builds, followed by its first commercial release—Android 1.0 (which had no codename)—in 2008. The most recent (initial) OS release is Android 6.0 Marshmallow. Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow is the most recent minor release.
Other mobile OS include: Research In Motion’s Blackberry, Hewlett-Packard Web and Microsoft’s Windows Phone.
How do I keep my mobile OS up-to-date?
There are a couple of important things to keep in mind next time you’re ready to download and install the most recent mobile OS update for your device. These include:
Updating your Apple device
Important things to note about Apple iOS software updates:
- due to potential installation issues, older devices may not receive the latest software updates
- iOS software updates are auto-pushed (downloaded) to devices, but not automatically installed
- software updates are generally downloaded when your device is connected to power, has a reliable Wi-Fi connection and there is enough available space (memory) on your device
- you’ll receive an automatic notification when there are new updates available to install—this includes both initial and minor releases
- you’ll need to agree to install the new software update, otherwise you’ll receive automatic pop-up box reminders.
To confirm your iOS software update has been successfully installed on your device (or to check your current iOS version), navigate to: Settings>General>Software Update.
Did you know … that starting with iOS 5.0.1, iOS updates have been made available wirelessly over-the-air (OTA). Previous iOS updates required iTunes and a physical connection between the iOS device and a personal computer.
Updating your Android device
Due to the large variety of Android mobile devices, the way OS updates occur can vary significantly, depending on the device type and its manufacturer. OS updates may be:
- automatic for the life of the device (similar to Apple)
- automatic for a certain period after release of the device (for example, two years)
- require you to actively seek out, download and install the OS updates.
If you’re using an Android device and want to check for available software updates (both major initial releases and subsequent minor releases), have a look at this short TechAdvisor video on How to update Android smartphone or tablet.
The availability of Android software updates can also be determined by the policies of your telco carrier. For example, your carrier (working closely with a device manufacturer) may test the compatibility of an OS update with its network and equipment, and once the update is approved by the carrier, the device manufacturer releases it through their standard update processes. This may ultimately delay its release but it gives greater confidence in device compatibility.
Did you know … that Nexus and Motorola mobile device owners have been able to do OTA updates commencing with Android 5.1 Lollipop. Previous Android updates required a physical connection between the mobile device and a computer (and a preferred source website to download updates from).
How big are mobile OS downloads?
We’ve crunched the numbers for Apple (iPhone) and Android (Nexus) and the download sizes may come as a surprise, particularly if you have a limited monthly mobile data allowance.
The average size of Apple’s initial OS download increased from 0.44 GB in 2010 (for iOS 4) to 1.94 GB in 2015 (for the latest iOS 9), representing a 1.5 GB (341 per cent) increase in size over the five-year period. See the Apple (iPhone) chart below., 
The average size of the Android initial (or as close to initial as practicable) OS download increased from 0.07 GB in 2010 (2.3 Gingerbread) to 0.86 GB in 2015 (for the latest 6.0 Marshmallow), representing a 0.79 GB (1,129 per cent) increase in size over the five-year period. See the Android (Nexus) chart below ., , , 
Apple (iPhone) vs Android (Nexus): Average size (GB) of initial operating system download by release year (csv)
 Due to the potential security risk and limited download quota available at most public Wi-Fi hotspots, it’s better to wait until you’re using a secure home Wi-Fi connection.
 An iOS version can apply to various iPhone models. For example, iOS 4 applied to iPhone 3G (0.31 GB), iPhone 3GS (0.40 GB) and iPhone 4 (0.61 GB), resulting in an average of 0.44 GB for iOS 4. The average size of iOS versions for the applicable iPhone models have been used in the chart.
 Source for Apple OS data: https://ipsw.me/all (note: mebibytes were converted to gigabytes using the ratio 1:0.00104858).
 An Android OS version can apply to various smartphone models. For the purpose of the Android chart, factory image sizes (which reflect a user’s actual download experience) for the Nexus model have been used. For example, 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich applied to the Nexus S (v 4.0.4 @ 0.16 GB) and Galaxy Nexus (v 4.0.4 @ 0.18 GB), resulting in an average of 0.17 GB for 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. The average size of Android OS versions for the applicable Nexus models have been used in the chart.
 The initial operating system release, or as close to the initial release as practicable, was used for Android. This is because not all initial release factory images were able to be sourced for the applicable Nexus model.
 Android 3.0 Honeycomb is omitted from the chart as this was developed for Android tablets only.