Of course Apple is engaging in planned obsolescence

The only thing wrong with our old iPhones is that Apple tricked us into “upgrading” them.
The only thing wrong with our old iPhones is that Apple tricked us into “upgrading” them.
Image: AP Photo/Lai Seng Sin
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Catherine Rampell at the New York Times wonders whether her iPhone, which became much less usable after she upgraded to iOS7, is being deliberately sabotaged by Apple, to encourage her to buy a new iPhone. This is a bit like asking whether or not Apple cares about design. Planned obsolescence has been part of how Apple, and just about every other PC maker, has operated since time immemorial.

It’s important to note that there is no evidence that planned obsolescence is explicitly a policy at Apple. There is no smoking gun here, no incriminating memo. But planned obsolescence is the nature of technological evolution. Hardware gets better, and software developers create new applications and operating systems—like iOS 7—to take advantage of this new power. Naturally, older hardware doesn’t handle the new software quite as well. Regardless of whether you think that discord is driven by some devious scheme to boost profit or it’s the product of useful innovations, the consequence is that whatever smartphone or notebook or tablet seemed so new and shiny one or two years ago suddenly seems slow, sad, jittery and, to the extent that we anthropomorphize our personal computing devices, sick. Our once faithful companion seems lame, half broken—like a miserable old dog that needs to be put down.

Your view of dated devices may inform your views about planned obsolescence. I recently did an informal survey of a handful of iPhone users who had upgraded older iPhones to iOS7, and they seemed about evenly split on its effects on their phones. Half liked the results. They said things like “it’s like having a new phone.” The other half were dissatisfied. Their phones were now running slower. They seemed less functional. I suspect the variability in people’s experiences with upgrades to new operating systems contributes to the impression that the phones that didn’t take to the upgrade are “just broken” or simply worn out. But there’s nothing wrong with most old phones that a simple battery replacement wouldn’t fix. Those phones aren’t inherently broken—Apple broke them with a software update.

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. Especially if it’s currently getting the job done.

This is why, unlike Rampell, I am using an iPhone 4S whose ability to accomplish everyday tasks I find more than satisfactory. But that’s because I refuse to upgrade it to iOS7. And I won’t be using hardware that runs iOS7 until I buy a new phone.

I cringe when I hear Apple CEO Tim Cook proudly announcing that the mass upgrade of iPhone owners to iOS7 was the biggest, fastest operating system rollout in history. That’s a lot of “broken” phones, and a lot of people who were told they could get a better user experience who are, if we’re being objective about it, having a worse one. It’s also a lot of new iPhone sales for Apple—which, after all, is hardly unique in the way it incentivizes users of its personal computing devices to go for the latest, supposedly greatest thing.