The Mac has long had the ability to restore macOS without the need for separate install media, a feature known as macOS Recovery:
macOS Recovery is part of the built-in recovery system of your Mac. You can start up from macOS Recovery and use its utilities to recover from certain software issues or take other actions on your Mac.
macOS Recovery makes it easy to reinstall macOS if there's been a major software issue. If the Mac's hard drive has been wiped or the Recovery system isn't working, it can even connect to the internet and download the necessary macOS installer:
Newer Mac computers and some older Mac computers automatically try to start up from macOS Recovery over the Internet when unable to start up from the built-in recovery system. When that happens, you see a spinning globe instead of an Apple logo during startup. To manually start up from macOS Recovery over the Internet, hold down Option-Command-R or Shift-Option-Command-R at startup.
iOS devices, unfortunately, don't have such a feature. If iOS needs to be reinstalled (a somewhat rare occurrence), the device must be connected to a Mac or PC and restored using iTunes. I had to do this just a few months ago as my iPad Pro became sluggish and unresponsive. After trying to restart it, the Apple logo appeared but it would never get any further. The only option I had was to put the iPad into recovery mode, dust off my Mac, and restore it using iTunes.
Requiring a Mac or PC to restore an iPad, a device that even Apple touts as a replacement for a traditional computer, makes it extremely difficult to complete the transition to a post-PC era. Ultimately, iOS (and by extension, the iPad) is still treated as an accessory.
Apple could break the shackles of iTunes for restoring iOS by either:
- Implementing some form of iOS Recovery, similar to macOS Recovery
- Using APFS Snapshots
With iOS Recovery, the device could either have a recovery volume containing the installer for iOS (space permitting) or be able to connect to the internet and download the necessary files, even if iOS isn't working—just like macOS Recovery.
Apple's new file system, APFS, is used on all iOS devices running iOS 10.3 and above. A notable feature of APFS is Snapshots, a read-only version of the file system taken at a point in time that can be reverted to. There isn't much documented about this feature but, in theory, iOS could take regular snapshots or even just one after a successful boot. If there's a problem (e.g., failed iOS update), iOS could simply restore to that point. It's not as robust as an iOS Recovery solution as it likely requires the file system to be intact.
In either case, there are possibilities of implementing some form of recovery process that doesn't require iTunes. After all, this is a process that hasn't changed since the launch of the original iPhone over ten years ago, so it's long overdue for a change.