Forget conspiracies: Why Apple’s reason for slowing your iPhone is hostile

Apple has admitted to intentionally slowing performance of older iPhones, a story that’s been discussed the Web-over. But the global discussion is largely missing the point.

Most commentary on this story presents a false dilemma.

Most commentary on this story presents a false dilemma: Either [a] view this as confirmation of “planned obsolescence,” the conspiracy theory that Apple intentionally slows down old hardware to encourage sales of new phone, or [b] believe Apple, that they slow down iPhones to benevolently extend the life of older devices. Option [a] suggests Apple acted against the consumer, option [b] suggests Apple made the best decision for the consumer.

In this false dilemma, option [a] is a red-herring. And because this conspiracy theory is still implausible, commentators accept option [b] and accept that Apple’s slowing of iPhones was done in the best interest of consumers. I believe this misses the point.

Here’s option [c]:

Unlike any iPhone before it — and really unlike any rechargeable device I’ve ever owned — the iPhone 6 and 6+ suffered hardware resets (crashes) when their batteries drop below a certain output. For option [c], it’s important to view this hardware crash as a problem unique to these phones.

(Admittedly, I don’t know that it’s unique to this hardware, only that I’ve owned five iOS devices dating back to 2011 and not one has suffered chronic hardware resets, neither before nor after Apple implemented this solution.)

Apple’s solution — their stated reason for slowing iPhones — should be viewed as consumer-hostile.

If you accept that the problem is unique to these phones, then Apple’s solution — their stated reason for slowing iPhones — should be viewed as consumer-hostile, without requiring conspiracy theory. iPhone 6 and 6+ have a hardware problem. Apple’s solution should include resolving that problem via hardware recall and replacement, an expensive option. Instead, they slowed the performance of all our phones, and made us pay for the hardware failure.

Auto consumers wouldn’t accept an ECU update that halved their horsepower as a solution to a car that stops running when hot. And neither should iPhone owners accept that their phones operate at half their initial clock speed to avoid bumping into a fatal hardware flaw. Is a slow car better than a car that randomly shuts down? You bet. But it’s not what consumers paid for. We shouldn’t accept crippled phones because Apple sold us flawed hardware.

We shouldn’t accept crippled phones because Apple sold us flawed hardware.

Why the planned obsolescence angle is a red herring

iPhones do get slower over time, and they have for years before Apple started implementing this intentional slowdown for degraded batteries. But it’s largely a result of Apple’s incentives, which don’t necessarily include forcing users to upgrade devices.

Each new iOS update is optimized for the latest devices, but Apple rolls out OS updates for older devices as well. With certain OS jumps, Apple introduces new transition effects and other hardware-intensive features that work well on new phones, but not on old phones. This results in poorer performance.

Google searches for “iphone slow” peak with annual major iOS updates.

iOS 11 — the version that rolled out with new phones this year — is particularly bad on older hardware. My iPhone 6 and iPad Mini 2 are significantly worse on iOS 11 than they were on iOS 10. I also own an iPhone 5 that I keep around to control my video camera, and it’s still on iOS 10. That iPhone 5 — which has an older battery and older hardware by two years versus the devices I upgraded to iOS 11 — still feels very snappy and usable.

Apple has a good reason to update older phones to newer versions of iOS, and it’s not to intentionally spoil performance. It’s good for the development community (and App Store), which doesn’t have to worry about supporting multiple versions of iOS, and it’s good for users in that they continue to get security updates which might otherwise leave their phones vulnerable to attacks. However, there is no doubt that this often comes at the cost of performance.

You don’t have to jump to “planned obsolescence” as a motivator, but simply accept that Apple is incentivized to serve the App Store and security of iOS, but not incentivized to keep your phone feeling fast. So performance takes a backseat to their incentives and suffers for it.

Should consumers accept that trade-off? I’m not certain. I expect that at some point my old hardware is not up to running the latest software. That’s reasonable. But I do wish that either Apple was more careful with the performance impact of their OS updates, or that they made it possible to revert to older OS versions to restore expected performance. Apple intentionally makes it very difficult to ignore iOS updates, and I didn’t expect that, as I dutifully updated my iPhone 6 to iOS 11, I was dooming my phone to unusable performance.

Apple may not currently be incentivized to maintain performance of older hardware. But we can change their incentives. For my part, I now own my first Android phone. (It’s not perfect, either.)