Your Phone isn't a Victim of Planned Obsolescence

Apple and Android Don't Hate You

| | Reading Time: 9 mins

tl;dr: No one cares enough to try and make your phone slow on purpose to get you to buy a new one.1 This has probably been said before, but it got under my skin today.

A friend of mine on Facebook recently liked a post about an Internet petition2. The petition was calling for Apple to stop releasing code that deliberately slowed down older phones. This code, they claimed, was designed solely to force users to buy new phones every three or four years. They think this is wasteful and that a phone should last a lot longer.

A lot of “ink” has been spilled on this topic before, but for some reason it crawled under my skin today. Here is my take on this:

Dear Poster,

Do you work in IT or with software? I ask because I do and I form my opinions based on my experience there. For reference, it has been my experience with other fields that things that seem illogical and evil to me turn out to not be. For example, cooking mystifies me because the recipes seem to be very dictatorial while the practitioners all seem to be freestyling.3

But back to IT. In general there are two kinds of updates: security fixes and new features.

  • Security fixes usually don’t add a lot of new requirements for CPU cycles, memory, storage, or power. They just close a hole or fix a bug.

  • Features on the other hand, often require more resources. Even features that look simple, like the solarized-style screen coloring in the latest iOS, can add resource demands. These are going to make your old device feel slower.

One conclusion you can draw from this is that one way to extend the life of devices is to only make security fixes. This should reduce any additional resource requirements to a minimum. You’ll still suffer from the inevitable decline of battery life, but your handset shouldn’t slow down because of the Operating System. But, see below about apps.

However, as the poster’s experience with her Android mobile shows4, most manufacturers won’t do this. The primary reason is that phone makers only get paid when you buy the phone, not for the software updates. Because there is no money in phone software updates most companies won’t do it.5

Apple, in my opinion, does an amazing job of pushing out updates for old phones. The folks behind the Android operating system also do a great job making security updates available. However, unlike Apple, which is both the software maker and phone manufacturer, the Android folks only make the software. So far they haven’t found any leverage they can use to force the phone manufacturers or mobile carriers to provide updates.

One thing that could be argued to be a negative on Apple’s part, and that is not addressed at all in the petition, is two practices that actually contribute to your old phone feeling slower:

  1. Apple pushes out new features and security fixes for old models at the same time. This means you can’t choose to just avoid the features but keep the fixes.

  2. Apple makes it hard for the average user to turn off new features to improve performance. I believe they do this because of their business philosophy that the phone experience is critically important and new features make the experience better.6

Two interesting examples that show this behavior in action are:

  • Your computer software often receives updates for a long time. This is generally because you paid for the software separately from the hardware (even if the price was bundled and you didn’t know it). Sometimes the updates stop including features and become security only after some period of time until you upgrade (pay again). A great example of this is the Windows operating system.

  • Apple has been providing their Operating System for free for several years. However, there was an iPod and iPhone update released several years ago at the same time providing similar functionality. Apple provided the iPhone update for free but charged for the iPod update.7 They did it for accounting reasons, not cost reasons. Again, this shows how Android and Apple are happy to provide updates but only Apple has enough controls in place to be able to afford to distribute them.8

It’s all about those Apps, no phone calls.

Said by no one, ever.

The petition and poster also missed the contributions apps make towards a bad old phone experience.

Apps get updated constantly. Many users have it done in the background and don’t even know the update happened. New app features work just like new software features. They can often come with greater resource demands. App authors also like to use the new features of the operating system.

Do you remember when notifications became easily available in the phone operating systems? You may not know when that happened in the OS, but, when it did you suddenly noticed that every application on your phone started notifying you constantly. All of those notification registrations can add up to some addition resource needs, even if only in extra network data and power for the antenna.

So how do I make my phone last four or more years

The only conclusions I can draw are:

  1. Never accept any phone software updates. This will cause your phone to slowly become more and more insecure and possibly unstable. This could cause you to lose your data to software crashes or hackers.

  2. Never update your apps. You won’t be able to paint your face for the Olympics in Facebook or access the newest Pokemon Go whatever they ares, but your phone won’t slow down. However, you may also lose the ability to use your apps at all. Some application providers expect you to run their latest code and will block you from their service if you don’t.

OK, that sucks, what other option is there?

Recycle. Make sure your phone is treated in an earth friendly way. This means using your manufacturer’s program if there is one and petitioning them to start one if there isn’t one. In the US, a couple of states have passed or are considering passing mandatory recycling laws to make the manufacturers clean up the mess. The European Union is considering similar legislation.

However, make sure the manufacturer isn’t just dumping the phones somewhere to hide them. Many places in south east Asia and Africa have become dumping grounds for materials needing recycling. The work is unsupervised and done in a way that often destroys the local environment or is harmful to the workers. To see how this has happened in another industry do an Internet image search for “ship breaking.”

Wow, that turned out to be much longer than I expected. I hope it was useful.

Note: This post was edited for grammar, typos and phrasing. A full history is available in the git repository.

Note: As an experiment an ad has been placed on this page. I am genuinely curious to see how it will be handled. This is apparently the most popular page on my site … weird.

  1. Companies and people are generally not evil and out to get you. Companies and people often act in their own best interest, but this isn’t always evil. Evil is motivated. Evil is generally demonstrated by repeated actions and behaviors, i.e. constant hate speech about different groups coupled with calls to attach or kill someone. Just because someone or a company does something you don’t like that doesn’t mean they are evil. This is also fodder for another blog post. 

  2. In my opinion, if your cause is centered around an Internet petition, you’re probably not doing anything but making noise. 

  3. Yeah, it is a bad example, but I was tired. Also, baking apparently is very very exacting. A better example would probably be about anti-vaxxers but that is a can of stupid I don’t have time to crack open. 

  4. The poster noted in a comment that her Android phone had not received a single software update in four years. 

  5. This is a slight simplification. Also, some Android phone makers do provide updates, but as I understand none have done it consistently or across their entire product line. 

  6. On iOS you can enable Low Power Mode which has a side effect of turning off a lot of “unnecessary” resource draining features. I suspect there is a similar setting for Android. However, your mileage may vary, so experiment. In my personal use, I find it extends the battery life significantly and reduces my data usage to a trickle. I do find myself missing some the features that are turned off like many push notifications and animation prettiness. 

  7. http://www.macworld.com/article/1131991/ipodtouch.html This wasn’t the example I was thinking of at first. I remembered something about a network driver or something similar for Mac OS X that cost $3 because of a similar accounting issue. 

  8. This is also a simplification. Some people argue that part of Apple’s motivation is to keep their ecosystem from fragmenting which helps the Apps side of the house.