What are OTA updates?

What is OTA or Over-the-Air update?

OTA or Over-the-air update is a method of software update that uses an internet connection to transfer data and update software or firmware on your device. OTA is sometimes also referred to as wireless update, wireless distribution, network update, or network distribution. It is a convenient way to update your software, especially when you don’t have access to the internet. When a new software update is available, your device will notify you.

OTA allows operators to push the latest updates (or fix existing issues) to the CPE over the air, eliminating the need for costly engineer visits. This makes it easier to deliver new updates to remote devices that have difficulties being accessed physically.

OTA technology has been around for a while and has grown more relevant with the growth of mobile devices and applications. Initially, OTA updates were utilized by mobile operators and telecommunication third parties who sent them through SMS to activate data updates in SIM cards or distribute system updates. Original equipment manufacturers or OEMs also use OTA updates to fix system bugs through firmware and change the user interface.

In more contemporary times, OTA updates are used in autonomous vehicles, smart home devices and other IoT devices.

One of the most common and well-known applications of OTA is Apple. The company has been using OTA updates to reach iOS devices ever since the release of iOS 5.0. Prior to OTA technology, users would have to connect their Apple devices to a computer/laptop via a USB cord and update the OS through iTunes. Nowadays, thanks to OTA technology, Apple delivers updates remotely in unencrypted zip files.

How OTA works

OEMs can deliver OTAs to users in a few ways, and these updates can either be automatic or manual.

With automatic OTA updates, mobile operators can deliver a firmware update to the user’s device. Such OTA updates are ideal for devices in remote locations, such as smart home devices, home security products, or autonomous vehicles.

Manual OTA updates notify users of the available update, and the user can choose to accept or refuse to download the update on their device. If you are an Apple user, you might have received manual OTA updates on your products with an option to accept or refuse the software updates.

IoT or smart home devices receive OTA updates through a variety of ways, such as Edge-to-Cloud updates, Gateway-to-Cloud updates or Edge-to-Gateway-to-Cloud updates.

How OTA benefits both developers and consumers

Over-the-Air updates deliver a plethora of benefits for both developers and consumers.

1. Saves time, money and energy

OTA updates save time, money and energy for both vendors and users. Since the need for in-person maintenance is eliminated, OEMs do not have to send teams to manually upgrade individual devices in case of software issues or bugs. Overall, maintenance costs are reduced significantly since vendors don’t need to provide field services — thanks to OTAs.

Similarly, for end users, the need to physically go to a store or connect to a PC to update their devices is also removed by using OTA updates, saving them loads of time. By using Over-the-Air updates, users can integrate software updates into their system with a simple tap.

2. Improved safety, security and compliance

Security is the number one priority for any customer. OEMs and vendors are able to update the firmware or software on any device and ensure they are up-to-date with the latest cyber security and patch up any vulnerabilities or bugs.

3. Additional revenue streams, more features for users

OTA updates can be used to add additional features that were not originally included in the devices when bought, increasing the value of the device. It can also be marketed as a ‘paid-upgrade’. Users can also enjoy newer features, keeping their products interesting and interactive.

4. Reduced operational costs

According to the statistics in the Stour Risius Ross report, software bugs and issues make up for 15% of the ‘all-industry’ recalls. OTA technology is capable of streamlining software/firmware upgrades and fixes and saves businesses a substantial amount in operational costs.

OTA update management in IoT or smart devices

We can see the application of OTA update management across the IoT and smart device industry especially. Thanks to Over-the-Air updates, many IoT product developers can now launch new smart devices into the field and extend their value by adding newer and more innovative features at a later date. For example, (example of Xunison using OTA updates on any of its products).

OTA update management in the automotive industries

Similarly, OTA update management extends to the automotive industry as well and for good reason. Imagine the inconvenience of having to return a vehicle to the dealer every time there were software issues to perform updates manually. OTA updates allow users the independence to manage any software updates for their vehicles themselves, and the process is as easy as updating their smartphones or laptops.