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The myth of slower iPhones and the truth of our upgrade addiction

Bill Snyder | Aug. 5, 2014
Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft don't build shoddy products to force upgrades -- they simply play on your deepest fears and desires.

You've probably seen the stories that all popped up this week asking, often in worried tones, whether Apple deliberately engineers new releases of iOS to slow down older iPhones and designs smartphones to fall apart just in time for the next release. These stories are appeaaring, of course, because Apple is getting close to releasing a spate of new products: OS X 10.10 Yosemite, the so-called iPhone 6iOS 8, and no doubt new iPads and Macs.

The notion that Apple engineers such slowdowns and quality degradation is preposterous, of course. But the fact that so many people believe it's true makes the issue worth discussing.

Is Apple guilty of planned obsolescence? Of course it is. Planned obsolescence is as American as the Fourth of July, and manufacturers have used the strategy to cajole consumers into spending since the early days of the auto industry.

It's obvious that Apple and the rest of the technology industry count on individuals and businesses to replace their computers, operating systems, and major application software every three or four years, while smartphone upgrade cycles are about half that long. New features are added to attract buyers. That's not exactly news.

The truth about tech's planned obsolescence
The unsexy truth is that the three most influential companies at the heart of the computer industry -- Apple, Microsoft, and Intel -- are quite responsible about building products that are backward compatible with previous versions. The upcoming release of OS X Yosemite, for example, will run on Macs as old as the MacBook Pro from mid-2007, although some of the snazziest features, such as Handoff, need newer hardware. On the Wintel side, Microsoft Office 2003 runs just fine on much newer PCs powered by top-of-the-line Core i7 Intel processors.

What about those "my iPhone got slower when a new model came out" claims or the similar "why does my PC run slower when a new Windows version comes out?" claim we used to hear in the PC's heyday? New operating system versions typically do more, so they stress older hardware. It's that simple.

In Apple's case, it has consistently introduced a new iOS version with each new iPhone model, and its users quickly adopt that new iOS even if they keep their old phone. Thus, they experience the "sudden" slowdown quickly. Their iPhone didn't get slower, but the OS changed to one that demands more from the hardware. (To Apple's credit, it typically issues an iOS update soon after to reduce unexpectedly high performance hits on older models.) That mass upgrade is very much an Apple phenomenon, which may explain why people notice the coincidence more.

Planned obsolescence is real, but not in the sense of making deliberately shoddy products that quickly fall apart. Major tech companies simply don't do that. In fact, doing so doesn't make economic sense. The real strategy of the technology industry is to manipulate your desires and perceptions to make existing products seem less desirable, so you buy a new one to replace it.


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