Are iPhones Made To Break?

In September 2017, Apple, Inc launched its latest product: the iPhone 8

The price of the new generation of handsets starts at $700, but it was widely criticised as the least innovative iPhone yet Concerns that consumers were being ripped off were further compounded by Apple’s other announcement at the same launch event: its most futuristic smartphone yet, the iPhone X, would be available just two months later, rendering the iPhone 8 pointless A study by Laura Trucco at Harvard University shows that there is a dramatic peak in online searches for “iPhone slow” each time a new Apple smartphone or iOS is released These spikes do not occur when Apple’s competitors release a new product This reflects persistent suspicions that Apple deliberately builds or sabotages its older products to become obsolete

The iPhone is Apple’s flagship device It sells over 200 million of them each year, comprising at least 50% of the company’s revenue Apple releases a new one every year, either a new generation or a variation on the current phone The changes between phones are a combination of the aesthetic and the functional – but increasingly often, the supposed improvements are only incremental This already raises suspicions that Apple is saving certain innovations in its hardware and software for future financial years

In this way, it is creating artificial demand for its products, because not one of them is built to its best potential, because the company knows it can use any improvements as a selling point for the next product If proof were needed that Apple is not organically evolving its products, but arbitrarily releasing a new phone each year, in 2015, Apple unveiled the iPhone Upgrade Program This is a subscription model that lets customers who pay a monthly fee for two years exchange their phone for the new model every twelve months For everyone else who does not subscribe, Apple provides just a one-year warranty This was central to class action lawsuits filed against Apple in 2016

The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus contained a defect that caused their touchscreens to become useless The defect became known as “touch disease” Owners of the phones sued Apple for keeping the defect secret, for making owners of broken phones pay for repairs, and for replacing damaged phones with refurbished ones that had the same problem In court, Apple argued that they were not liable because the defect occurred after the one-year warranty expired Furthermore, Apple dismissed claims that it kept the defect secret, or should have repaired phones for free, because “nowhere do plaintiffs allege that the iPhone 6 or 6 Plus deviated from Apple’s intended design

” In other words, Apple tacitly admitted its products are designed to endure the bare minimum to meet the company’s predetermined business strategy This is planned obsolescence The term “planned obsolescence” traces its origins to 1924, when the CEO of General Motors, Alfred Sloan Jr, suggested a new way to generate sales in the American car industry He introduced the idea of annual design changes to convince car owners they needed to buy a new replacement each year, even though the vehicles functioned perfectly

The was later popularised by industrial designer Brooks Stevens, who defined it as, “Instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary” There are different types of planned obsolescence A product can be designed to deteriorate quickly, consumers can be prevented from repairing the product, the system the product uses to work can be changed to stop it working, and the style of new products can be altered to make the old ones unfashionable Apple can be accused of all of these It introduced five-point screws which prevent people from replacing faulty parts, and habitually changes the appearance of the iPhone, forces users to update the iOS, and only guarantee phones to last as long as the one-year warranty

This is technically not illegal Indeed, it is hard to see where planned obsolescence differs from standard industry practice To survive in the long term, companies depend on something called the replacement cycle This is the process by which consumers find themselves needing new versions of old products, either because the old one has broken or because newer versions of the same product offer advantages This is encouraged in capitalist economies

The theory is that companies keep themselves afloat by innovating so they both outperform their competitors and give consumers better value, thus making their products the most desirable Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest Apple’s products are not designed to deteriorate quickly Apple’s own environmental reports say that the average iPhone is used for three years, which makes it the most durable phone on the market As for the commonly held belief that Apple’s software updates deliberately slows phones down, a 2017 study by Futuremark suggests otherwise They collected two years worth of data for the iPhones 5, 6, 6s and 7, comparing their system performances across three iOS versions

The results show the phones performed almost identically after two years and three operating systems Depending on the phone, there may have been statistically insignificant reduction, or even improvements, in performance Before this data became available, Laura Trucco concluded that the spike in online searches about slow iPhones is the product of public perception She suggested it is a psychological phenomenon rather than a real plot by Apple Nevertheless, the speed of iPhone performances can be affected by system updates

Each new iOS contains extra functions that older phones were not designed to cope with, or that were designed to run on newer phones Each software update could be guilty of poor optimization, as could outdated apps installed before the new operating system More broadly, the law of entropy dictates that the older hardware gets, the less well it will function Combine this with the habit of putting more, not fewer, apps and files on smartphones as time goes by, and it is no surprise that they would steadily slow down It can be argued that Apple does plan obsolescence in its products

But is it done in an insidious way? Is it part of a grand, unethical business scheme, or just the way the industry works as a whole? Either way, there is no denying that Apple has cornered the market in being fashionable to the point where it has legions of devotees And to them, upgrading to the latest, extortionately priced product is not a problem

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