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Starting with iOS 5 in 2011, Apple has released a major new iOS version each fall and a notable follow-up update early in the following year. For example, iOS 6 launched in September 2012 and was updated to iOS 6.1 in January, and iOS 7, which was launched in September 2013, was updated to iOS 7.1 with CarPlay and interface improvements in March 2014. But starting with the recently released iOS 8, it appears that Apple has a different development schedule for 2015 and perhaps beyond. According to sources, Apple is already hard at work on three major follow-up versions to iOS 8: iOS 8.1, iOS 8.2, and iOS 8.3.

8.2 9to5iOS 8.2 visits to 9to5Mac

We’ve confirmed that these major new versions are in development via two means. First, a developer of a major hardware-connected iOS application has shared with us their analytics, and this data indicates that all three versions are in testing by Apple employees in or around Cupertino, California. Second, and much closer to home, our own Google Analytics for show that iOS users are visiting our website via iOS 8.1, iOS 8.2, and iOS 8.3 devices. iOS 8.1 hits to started appearing even months before iOS 8.0 launched, but 8.2 and 8.3 visits only started picking up following iOS 8’s release in mid-September.

8.3 9to5iOS 8.3 visits to 9to5Mac

While Apple works on several iOS features and enhancements over the course of several years, it typically only begins wholly testing major new releases close to the ship dates of the preceding release. Apple working on three significant follow-ups to iOS 8 is a shift from the usual development cycle, one which would normally indicate Apple to be working on just iOS 8.1 as well as iOS 9.0. It’s possible that iOS 9 is also in the works, and of course Apple is always working on nominal bug fix (x.x.1 or .2 or .3) updates, but the fact that 8.1, 8.2, and 8.3 are all in simultaneous development raises some interesting possibilities:

The first possibility is that Apple is moving away from annual iOS releases in the fall that are tied to hardware. Right now, Apple releases hardware updates to its two most critical lines in the fall alongside new iOS versions: the iPhone and the iPad. While connecting the new hardware to major annual software releases is a prime marketing tactic for Apple and ensures that the latest hardware and software are well integrated, problems do occur. For example, while the hardware of the past few iPhone models (the iPhone 5, 5s, and 6/6 Plus) has clearly been ready for launch, the corresponding software releases have been buggy.

iOS 6’s inclusion of the faulty Apple Maps app left a sore in an otherwise successful iPhone 5 debut, iOS 7’s new design and feature-set remained unpolished for nearly six months following the launch of the iPhone 5s, and the iPhone 6’s launch was met with a buggy iOS 8 that included a nonfunctional HealthKit app and a botched iOS 8.0.1 update. Perhaps Apple has realized that releasing major new versions in the fall tied specifically to hardware has more cons than pros, and perhaps Apple is readying these later 8.2 and 8.3 updates as more minor releases for the 2015 iPhone and iPad models. Perhaps one of the updates is even a forked version specific to the upcoming 13-inch iPad.

Another possibility is the exact opposite: perhaps Apple is simply speeding up its iOS development process. Maybe Apple is still planning to launch iOS 9.0 around September or October 2015 alongside new hardware, and the company also plans to release significant iOS 8 feature updates throughout the first three quarters of 2015.

Our sources indicated early this year that Apple has been planning to include significant Maps improvements with iOS 8, but that the feature was pushed back due to bugs and internal conflicts. Apple has also been working on a new iPad split-screen mode for a version of iOS 8. Additionally, Apple is readying an iOS update to activate the NFC-based Apple Pay service and the company will need to release an iOS update in early 2015 to make iPhones play nicely with the upcoming Apple Watch. Perhaps those aforementioned upcoming features will be staggered across 8.1, 8.2, and 8.3 across this fall and next year.

A final possibility is that Apple could be moving its iOS naming convention to an iOS 8.x system, much like the Mac operating system is marketed as OS X 10.x. It could be confusing to Apple users in a couple of years from now when iOS X/10 and OS X will co-exist. Perhaps the 8 will be to iOS what the 10 is to the Mac OS, and we’ll be living several years into the future with iOS 8.x releases. That last piece of speculation, however, seems far less likely than iOS 8.1, 8.2, and 8.3 accounting for significant hardware-tied features coming across 2015.

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