Every year, Apple tempts the world with a new, expensive iPhone, hailed as the fastest and best iPhone ever. You buy it. And then, just in time for the next Fastest iPhone Ever to hit stores, the one in your pocket feels crummier and more sluggish than ever. Coincidence? Or conspiracy?
Apple’s products are announced and sold in regular cycles—at this point, a new model a year for each of its flagship product lines. This means that, merely a single year from the time you first learn about the iPhone 6, that phone will no longer be cool or shiny or interesting or desirable; instead, the iPhone 7 (or, more likely, the iPhone 6S or 6+ or 6G) will be the thinnest and lightest and best.
That’s a pretty tight schedule. Most of us, if left alone with our thoughts and our devices, will be happy with a new phone for two or three years—and for a company that’s built its reputation on regularly moving products at an immense scale, that represents a problem. How can Apple keep up the revenues that make it Apple if consumers only need to buy one Apple product every three years or so? Marketing helps, yes—as does introducing a new before-that-moment-unnecessary consumer computing product every year or two.
But what if something more sinister is is involved? What if Apple can induce you to purchase a new device at its whim—by rendering your old devices useless? According to some smartphone paranoids, Apple products don’t just have a short shelf life—they’re actually designed to slow down, exactly (and conveniently) when newer models are available. Or, even more ominously, Apple is intentionally beaming software to your handset that makes it shit the bed.
Masterful marketing is one thing, but deliberately building expensive phones that aren’t made to last is a deceitful practice known as “planned obsolescence,” and iPhone owners have been speculating about it for years. The slowdown conspiracy’s biggest mainstream moment was a 2013 article in the New York Times Magazine by Catherine Rampell:
At first, I thought it was my imagination. Around the time the iPhone 5S and 5C were released, in September, I noticed that my sad old iPhone 4 was becoming a lot more sluggish. The battery was starting to run down much faster, too. But the same thing seemed to be happening to a lot of people who, like me, swear by their Apple products. When I called tech analysts, they said that the new operating system (iOS 7) being pushed out to existing users was making older models unbearably slow. Apple phone batteries, which have a finite number of charges in them to begin with, were drained by the new software. So I could pay Apple $79 to replace the battery, or perhaps spend 20 bucks more for an iPhone 5C. It seemed like Apple was sending me a not-so-subtle message to upgrade.
But this was just another revolution in the annual cycle of upgrade agony. Five years ago, Apple released iOS 4, which offered brand new (in 2010) features like multitasking and a tap-to-focus camera. It also completely crippled the iPhone 3G, an incredibly popular model that sold over a million units in its debut weekend. Over at Gizmodo, Adam Frucci described his post-upgrade plight:
With my phone, typing has become nearly impossible. One of the first letters I hit pops up, but then stays stuck as I continue to type. It catches up eventually, but without the visual cues that I’m hitting the right keys, it makes typos an inevitability.
Furthermore, opening very basic apps has gotten much slower, and apps crashing to the home screen is much more frequent. Merely trying to open the settings panel took me three tries right after installation, for example. Loading up my photo library takes upwards of 10 seconds. Updating Instapaper takes twice as long as it used to. There’s a new pause when I hit the home button from within an app, and when it finally does close, the animation of app icons falling back into place is jittery and stilted.
This was, of course, right around the time Apple announced the iPhone 4, perhaps its flashiest and most ambitious product reveal to date. This was maybe the most glaring case of iPhone slowdown, but hardly the only bad example. When iOS 7 came out in 2013, many iPhone users felt like their phones were better off before upgrading. Then, like clockwork, when iOS 8 arrived, users documented how much faster their phones were on iOS 7:
This isn’t all in our heads. A New York Times article from 2014 even shows that Google queries for “iphone slow” spike every year, coinciding with these product updates; a look at Google’s trends page forecasts further spikes:
Given that Apple fans are typically more loyal to the company than they are to their own mothers, conspiratorial allegations like this meets heavy resistance. Rene Ritchie, editor of Apple enthusiast site iMore, dismissed charges of planned iPhone obsolescence as “sensational,” a campaign of “misinformation” by the uninformed. Even our Apple-skeptical sister site Gizmodo scoffed, calling Campell’s Times mag article a “dispatch from a land of vague comprehension.” Apple defenders use two different arguments: breaking iPhones on purpose risks losing customers, and slowdown is inevitable when you keep adding new software features. The second point has some truth to it: bigger and better software features often requirer faster hardware, and unlike a desktop computer there’s no way to supercharge an old iPhone with more memory or a better processor. As Christopher Mims pointed out on Quartz, “There is no smoking gun here, no incriminating memo,” of Apple malfeasance. And yet:
There is a way to get around planned obsolescence, whether you believe it’s intentional or not. I’ve been using Apple products for about 25 years. And one of the first things I learned was: Except for small, incremental updates, do not upgrade the operating system of the hardware you are using.
In 2015 we can’t trust Apple to have our backs as consumers, nor can we suppose that literally every single thing it does as a company isn’t deliberate and calculated; even if your iPhone isn’t being sabotaged, someone decided that drained batteries and slow email is O.K. to hit rock bottom come shopping time. Let’s not be naive.
When iOS 28 arrives someday alongside the iPhone 26, it’s not realistic to expect our trusty iPhone 25 to do everything as well as the new model. That’s fine. The price of progress might be missing out on some flashy features, but that shouldn’t mean our old phones are rendered turd-bricks. Just because I can’t do Cool New Thing X doesn’t mean my keyboard should freeze when I’m trying to text “hello” to someone, or that the photos I’ve already taken should take ages to load. I’m not asking that my old phone becomes better, but it’s not too much to expect our old phones to not become much worse. These seem like headaches Apple could easily engineer its way around if it really wanted to make the phone you bought two years ago worth holding onto. But why the hell would Apple ever want to do you a favor?
Illustration by Jim Cooke
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Can we also talk here about their inability to keep even their ports straight? I mean, they’ve gone from Firewire to other firewire to USB to USB 3.0, and VGA to DisplayPort to ThunderBolt to you’d-better-have-a-magical-wireless-monitor, and all those crazy-ass proprietary connections on their phones/tablets? I’m not a Mac user and will never be (and I’m sure I got the names of some of their ports wrong, because Apple), but my wife is. And I absolutely HATE having to watch her buy countless dongles and adapters whenever she updates one piece of the equation. It’s not just planned obsolescence – it’s fucking highway robbery.
Yea. Fuck Apple. I want my SCSI port back!
This is why I never believed in the RDF and joined the iHype crowd.
You get what you deserve, fanboys.
You do understand that the rest of the industry is moving in the same direction when it comes to ports, right?
I’ve been ranting about this conspiracy for years, but with all phones. My current phone, a Motorola RAZR M, started getting slow. I had it totally wiped and reset to factory and didn’t add any more apps than I needed to work.
It is now just as slow as it was before.
Same with my htc windows phone. You can laugh all you want, but it is a free phone, never see a bil, AND I have to have windows phone for who I work with. It is almost 2 years old, and the battery has just crapped the bed. The 2 windows options that we are given to upgrade is either a cheap quality phone, or I have to pay a portion of the cost, but I don’t know if I actually own the phone.
Interesting. I’ve used/owned iOS products and, more recently, Windows Phones. The iOS devices were typically seriously dragging after a couple of years. The WP devices did get noticeably slower as I saddled them with increasingly heavy software, but they remained entirely usable.
I don’t even have that much on my phone, but the battery charge used to be a day, now it is 10 hours.
I’ve been using a Nexus 4 (pay as you go) without any of the crap that carriers push to the phone, and I haven’t had any slowdown issues. I have a feeling in your case it may be something your carrier is including in your software.
The second people stop upgrading their OS’s on Apple products to promote their longevity, is the second Apple upgrades the backend that the products connect to to say “Oh sorry, you can’t use this feature anymore because our current infrastructure only supports connections from the latest OS to provide customers with the best experience.”
When you’re an Apple consumer, you do not have control over your experience, the experience has control over you… don’t pretend otherwise. With the redesign of the Mac Pro series, the last bastion of user-friendly design built to “last” (the G4) went away… more and more pro-sumers and Production bodies are switching to Linux and Windows platforms every day.
I have several friends who can’t figure out how to easily delete pictures or emails off of their iPhones/Mac. I don’t get it but I have windows and an iPhone so I just plug it in and delete everything off of a folder. Does this not happen with a Mac? Honestly I would be ok with a different phone if I didn’t have all of my music on iTunes. I regularly say that apple is fascist and controlling and people laugh but it’s true!
I do have an amazon kindle for books and I like it. Glad I never used my iPad for reading.
Don’t be absurd. It is the same for virtually every other phone maker. You upgrade when they have something to sell you or else.
They’ve already started doing this, to an extent, using the App store. I have a 5c and refused to upgrade to the latest operating system because of slowdown’s I’ve encountered on previous phones. Now, when I try to access certain features in the App store, I get a message along the lines of, “You must upgrade to the latest iOS to view this app package.” I’m not even trying to download the package — I just want to see what apps are included!
Nice try, Apple, but I’m still not upgrading.
right, because apple is trying to avoid the nightmare fragmentation of major chunks of their userbase running six different versions of the OS.
On the flip side, as long it met minimum specs, almost every old PC I’ve owned has improved in performance when upgrading to one of the good Windows (i.e. 98 to XP SP2, XP SP2 to 7, 7 to 10RC). XP to Vista was the only upgrade that didn’t show a clear improvement.
This is the function of having business customers. There’s far too many companies still using XP, or Windows Server 2003, who would revolt if Microsoft tried these exploitative tactics, and then Microsoft would be screwed. Same reason ThinkPads are stuffed with legacy ports.
Microsoft has its own bag of dirty tricks, of course, but they can’t pull shit like this. Apple can, so it does.
Microsoft just makes you pay out the ying-yang for upgrade and maintenance rights. At work we joke that they should be called Micro$oft, and I joke their slogan should be, “You’ll bring money, and you’ll like it.” lol
Good thing a Microsoft Client/Server platform will easily run for 10+ years, and can be easily maintained in house.
Wait, what??? Not my experience. Every single MS “upgrade” was a three hour plus headache of finding out what went wrong. That’s when I switched to a Mac and decided to become a luddite. I know the how, I just choose to not.
Though I will give you this: I have an iPhone and haven’t updated the OS because the last time I did it two years ago, I had MS flashbacks and lost most of my aps. I need a new phone, and I’m seriously considering an old school flip. I don’t need email; it’s too 1997 anyway.
Apple is not a software company. Microsoft is.
It makes no sense for a software company to make its mainstay product get iteratively shittier on the same hardware. It’s in the best interests for them to maximize compatibility for the broadest possible install base.
For a hardware company, however, it makes all the sense in the world to minimize install base because the software is only the carrot that gets you to buy the stick.
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