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The Existential Struggle of Dealing With the iPhone’s Red Update Icon

The complicated logic of deciding when to live with the annoying red button.

Time to update your iPhone's OS
Time to update your iPhone’s OS.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Apple.

There’s been a battle among iPhone owners for years: to update your phone or to not update your phone? For newer handsets, it wasn’t an issue. An OS update meant you had the latest features and security patches—and if you’re going to pony up for the newest iPhone, you’re going to take advantage of its every capability. But for those with handsets more than a cycle or two old, there was doubt. Updating your phone kept you hip with your friends, but it also meant a slower phone, the subject of years of speculation and denials until Apple finally admitted to knowingly slowing down older handsets.

You had to weigh your decision: Were the features and issues worth the possible frustration? But with the choice not to update would come a persistent shame and nagging on the part of Apple: the red update icon. For many, this quandary verged on an existential crisis.

You’ve seen it before. There, hovering in the upper-right-hand corner of your settings app, an irritating, seemingly permanent red bubble reminding you that there’s an update available for your phone (sometimes erroneously). If you’ve explicitly chosen not to update your handset, it remains a constant reminder of the choice you’ve made, but it’s also an eyesore and a nagging point for friends who spot the blaring icon on your home screen. If you’ve decided not to update your phone, that’s your choice—you shouldn’t have to deal with this annoying badge making itself comfortable on your screen. For those who want—or need—order on their phone, that red icon isn’t merely a mild nuisance; it’s a full-on offense.

The red notification icon isn’t exclusive to the settings app, of course. It shows up on Messages, the App Store, Mail or Gmail—any app trying to draw your attention to an unread or un-acted-upon notification. Dealing with it in most apps is a minor annoyance: Just read the red dot–causing message, listen to the voicemail, or archive your inbox, and you’re free of that persistent crimson reminder.

The system-based red-update-icon issue is more troublesome. With the launch of iOS 11.2.1 this past month, the issue reared its head again. Some iPhone owners didn’t want to update their device, period; others specifically didn’t want to update their handset because they aren’t interested in using the main feature included in iOS 11.2.1: Apple Pay Cash. Apple has asserted that its digital payment platform is secure and, in fact, safer to use than a credit card for those worried about identity fraud. Still, some iPhone owners didn’t want to hand their payment information over to Apple, and they either had to live with a red update icon on their phone or cave.

While iPhone owners may be irritated at the red update icon, it serves a purpose. Apple wants you to update your phone. Often, these updates include important security patches—Apple’s August 2016 update, iOS 9.3.5, for example, included protection against the Trident malware that could, if accidentally downloaded, read your emails and texts, record phone calls, activate your phone’s camera and mic, and track your location. The iOS 10.3 update last March packed in fixes for more than 350 identified vulnerabilities. Beyond adding Apple Pay Cash, the iOS 11.2.1 update most notably included a security update for HomeKit users and only a handful of other bug fixes. Was it really worthy of that dire red bubble?

In light of the recent discovery of the Meltdown and Spectre chip flaws, which affect nearly every mobile and desktop device on the planet (including iPhones and iPads), we’re reminded that in terms of security, that annoying red update icon is important. Mitigations for Meltdown were included in iOS 11.2, the update Apple released in early December. Now, iOS 11.2.2 is out, and it includes mitigations for Spectre as well. While iOS 11.2.1 may have come across as inconsequential, regardless of your opinion of Apple Pay Cash, updating your device to at least iOS 11.2 is now crucially important if you want to keep your data secure.

With that in mind, perhaps Apple should take a different stance with its red notification badge. It should act more like it does with other apps: Once you’ve gone into your settings and seen that an update is available, it disappears, unless that download includes critical security updates. Those with a steely will and a vendetta against Apple following #SlowPhoneGate (or whatever we’ll eventually call Apple’s last snafu) may still be loath to remedy that red update icon. Perhaps it even acts as a reminder that holding off on all those past updates was sometimes a good call. But in the wake of these new chip vulnerabilities, iPhone owners—even ones who hate updating their phones—need to make that notification badge disappear by upgrading their phone to the latest version of iOS. It’s the only real way to rid your phone of that annoying icon, and in this case, it’s also the only way to ensure your device data remains secure and your phone protected.

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Illustration depicting a colorful group of people using an array of mobile devices