Why Apple Isn’t Sabotaging Your Old iPhone [Opinion]


The term “planned obsolescence” has achieved negative connotations, but it originally referred to a long-standing tradition of changing designs to sell more products.

It was coined by the car industry in the 1930s to refer to annual model updates. Over the years, however, the term has taken on a darker meaning. But planned obsolescence is a good thing. It’s the driving force behind much innovation.

This morning, New York Times reporter Catherine Rampell accused Apple of breaking her old iPhone 4 with the iOS7 update, which made it unbearably slow. “It seemed like Apple was sending me a not-so-subtle message to upgrade,” she wrote in a piece entitled, Why Apple Wants to Bust Your iPhone.

According to Rampell, Apple is feeling the heat from Samsung, HTC and others, and is resorting to sabotaging older iPhones with a software update and force users to upgrade their hardware.

This is bullshit from every angle. The iOS7 upgrade isn’t obligatory, it’s voluntary, and pissing off customers isn’t a good way to keep them as customers. There’s no mention that Apple sold a record-smashing 33.8 million iPhones last quarter.

Truth is, Apple’s products are so far ahead of the curve, it’s a constant criticism leveled at the company: that it is a willing practitioner of planned obsolescence.

Apple is sometimes accused of being guilty of planned obsolescence, for example, because it releases products with batteries and other parts that can’t be easily replaced by users. Because they can’t fix the device themselves, this obliges the customer to pay Apple for an expensive repair or to buy a replacement device.

According to critics, these devices would have been expressly designed with this anti-consumer feature in mind. “The average Apple product has been designed to be unfixable if it breaks.”

The reality is, though, that technology is ever becoming more sophisticated, more minuscule and more complicated to make. The result is that every successive generation of gadget is usually less repairable than its predecessor.

Look at a device as simple as a radio: in the 1930s, they were massive pieces of analog gadgetry that could be repaired by plugging in a new vacuum tube. Now, they are small and sophisticated enough to fit into a fingernail and safely play music in the shower. It’s true that if that radio breaks, you can’t repair it, but it’s also true that a radio in the 1930s couldn’t take a shower with you.

The point is clear. The more sophisticated a device is, the less repairable by amateurs it is, and because Apple is so far ahead of the competition, it is often the first accused of “planned obsolescence” for manufacturing devices using designs that will become the new benchmark for repairability in the next year. The goalpost is ever shifting. One of Apple’s industrial designers told me that the products are very carefully designed to be repaired, but by professional technicians, not consumers.

Even so, Apple does more than most companies to make sure that if your iPhone, iPad or Mac breaks, you can get it replaced. There are almost four hundred Apple Stores with fully serviced Genius Bars around the country that will repair or replace your device in the first year’s warranty, In addition, Apple sells a product called AppleCare which has set the gold standard for extended warranties in the tech industry.

Apple is also often accused of another form of planned obsolescence: systemic obsolescence.

According to critics like Rampell, every time Apple releases a new version of OS X or iOS that doesn’t work with past Macs or iPhones, it’s deliberately making these devices largely obsolete. There’s nothing devious about this, though: the natural result of being quick to embrace the future is to be similarly quick to abandon the past. Microsoft, for example, has largely maintained backwards compatibility with Windows apps for the past twenty years, but the result has been an operating system that is extremely vulnerable to glitches and freezes, as well as malware and security exploits.

The move from the 30-Pin Dock Connector to Lightning might also be described as one engineered out of planned obsolescence. Because Apple changed the dock connector for its line-up of iDevices, critics argue that the hundreds of millions of accessories and cables that use the earlier 30-Pin standard have been made obsolete.

Such a criticism is unavoidable, but when accusing a company of planned obsolescence, intent matters. The 30-Pin Dock Connector was a bulky component to fit into devices that have been ever slimming. The new lightning connector has tons of great advantages. Even so, Apple used that dock connector for almost ten years, and to ease the transition continues to sell affordable 30-pin-to-Lightning adapters for people who want to use their new iPhones, iPods and iPads in their old 30-pin accessories.

The truth is that critics who accuse Apple of planned obsolescence usually don’t understand the nuances of the term. In 1960, cultural critic Vance Packard divided planned obsolescence into two categories: planned obsolescence of desirability and planned obsolescence of function. These two concepts are not the same thing, and Apple is only guilty of one of them. Their goal, of course, is to make every product better than the one before, and market it as such. But if Apple is unafraid to embrace the future, that doesn’t make them underhanded: it makes them courageous. It’s a win for consumers.

In an interview with the London Evening Standard in March 2012, Apple’s head designer, Sir Jonathan Ive, gave some thoughts that revealed how he felt about planned obsolescence. He said: “As consumers we are incredibly discerning, we sense where has been great care in the design, and when there is cynicism and greed.”

The hallmarks of planned obsolescence in Ive’s view, then, are cheapness, shoddiness, carelessness and cynicism. There are many words one might use to describe Apple, but not these.

Brittany Morford contributed.

Leander’s new book about Jony Ive and the Apple design studio is out in November. Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products is available for pre-order on Amazon.

  • adrianpintea

    Finally someone who knows what he’s talking about. Very good article. Keep up the good work.

  • TheMartinDobson

    I’m not too sure how people keep breaking their phones. I work in the trades (Construction Electrician) and am on dirty, dangerous job sites all day where my phone is being banged around in my pocket or tool bag, I had an iPhone4 for 3 years and just upgraded to an iPhone 5s because… I wanted to. Not because the 4 was unusable, or broken, in fact it still works awesome. No cracked screen or major dents. Call me lucky, but I agree with Leander on the “repair” argument, there is no reason why someone keeps breaking their phone unless they’re misusing it.

    Now the iPhone 4 isn’t as blazing fast as the 5s, but thats a gimmie. But it still does work and it’s still very usable.

  • Max_77

    Trying to use mavericks on a white 208 macbook is like installing a 3-Panel touchscreen heads-up display system on a Model-T ford. I do wish I could upgrade the freakin ram though. A few millimeters is not worth hundreds of dollars I could save by not getting ram from apple, on macs at least.

    NY Times has been full of BS for years. Clawing to a dying market.

  • nemesis4670

    Do we really need another “You don’t understand Apple… so let me defend them and explain them to you” articles?

  • ChadGleaves

    Thank you for an educated article. Its nice to see someone write with some business education behind them. If education makes Leander a fan boy then give us more of that style.
    Try installing mavericks on a 2008 machine? Its 7 years old!

    All I know is that my 2011 macbook pro has never run better than with Mavericks and battery life increased by 45min to an hour. Im happy.

    The latest IOS and MAC OS brought about the tightest integration of products EVER.

    At the rate Apple is improving as a WHOLE, Microsoft’s days are numbered and Google I’m sure is working overtime just to keep up.

  • Truffol

    Fantastic article. Repairibility is only one of many factors that a designer has to consider. That sort of flexibility is almost guaranteed to add weight and bulk to the device, so it’s understandable why Apple chose to gave that up. In addition, Apple’s customer service is great. They almost always repair or replace devices for free (besides cracked screens which are obviously the user’s fault).

  • Ianu

    iOS7 upgrade is, obviously, optional, but once upgraded you cannot return to iOS6. It’s possible that Apple will fix some of the bugs on iOS7on iPhone4, but until then, many users feel that this upgrade of the OS is essentailly a downgrade and in that time, some will change its phone (Apple hopes to an iPhone5).

    The increased lack of reparability is a process that started some years ago. I’m not sure that an iPhone must be reparable by an user (perhaps allowing a battery change could be a good thing), but for Macs… What implies, in terms of improvements, the fact of not allowing the access to the MacBook battery, Ram or HD?. Are the new Macs any faster or any better for the fact of having an unibody chasis? Is any better the new iMac for having a few millimeters less?. Yeah, they are awsome, but does it pay off

  • JMO_L

    I have been on the fence for the past few years. Wondering if Apple’s move to design their products to be less user repairable or upgradable is a strategy of planned obsolescence or it is simply a design and engineering decision that is has a sacrifice that comes with smaller, concentrated technology. This article is a convincing me towards the latter, well done argument. The NYT’s write is just logical.

  • nvettese

    At the rate Apple is improving as a WHOLE, Microsoft’s days are numbered and Google I’m sure is working overtime just to keep up.

    Google is working overtime to keep up??? Really? If that’s the case why did Apple take the Notification shade from Google? Why when iOS7 boots up, the lock screen is exactly like Android? It seems that Apple is the one working overtime to keep up…

    Maybe with iOS8 you can have another integration into the OS that will work with Twitter and Facebook, but nothing like the amount of integration that’s in Android.

    iOS is so far behind, and that is a fact. With every announcement Tim Cook makes, the stock price drops. Why??? Because Apple has yet to show any innovation, they are constantly trying to sue the competition out of being innovative, so that they can look like they are the tech company to beat.

    Why has Samsung sold more phones in Q3 than Apple, LG and Nokia combined? COMBINED! More people are coming to Android because they are tired of the same old OS, the tired old tiny screens, and the lackluster performance of iOS7.

  • ChrisRM

    It seems as though Apple IS pushing upgrades. Take for instance the automatic download of iOS 7 which is now on my iPad3 which I have no intention of installing. There is no way to turn off Over The Air downloads and no way to delete them. 3 problems. I didn’t ask for it, I might have a bandwidth limit and it just effectively stole a pile of storage on my machine. Isn’t that illegal or is it in the EULA somewhere?

  • ChrisRM

    It seems as though Apple IS pushing upgrades. Take for instance the automatic download of iOS 7 which is now on my iPad3 which I have no intention of installing. There is no way to turn off Over The Air downloads and no way to delete them. 3 problems. I didn’t ask for it, I might have a bandwidth limit and it just effectively stole a pile of storage on my machine. Isn’t that illegal or is it in the EULA somewhere?

  • WillysJeepMan

    Just because a particular set of actions doesn’t line up with the classic definition of “planned obsolescence” doesn’t mean that it is not happening.

    As ChrisRM previously stated, Apple DOES push the upgrade. Every device that Apple identifies as being eligible for iOS 7 and connects to the internet downloads the upgrade image for iOS7 without asking the user to do so. (but does not actually install it) That file is quite sizable and there is no supported method for removing it.

    But that is an annoyance and wasting of space that I paid for, not planned obsolescence. Where Apple’s motives come into question is in (A) stating that a particular device is capable of running iOS 7 and (B) not providing a means of downgrading back to a previous version.

    Apple has a responsibility to its customers (if they want them to remain customers) to be conservative in defining which devices can run iOS 7… even more so when there is no ability to back off the update.

    I understand that I’m in the minority with my opinion, but that simply means that Apple will have a tougher time keeping me as a customer.

  • John Adams

    “This is bullshit from every angle. The iOS7 upgrade isn’t obligatory, it’s voluntary,”

    Actually you’re wrong, Leander. In specific cases, the iOS7 upgrade ::IS:: obligatory.

    Here’s one of them. My AT&T contract expired. I called in to unlock my phone. How do you actually get the unlock on the phone? You have to do a restore. On September 21st, Apple stopped signing 6.1.3. Now I have an iPhone4 ::iIOS-LOCKED:: at 7.0.3 which is, for all intensive purposes, a paper weight. As 7.0.x is just gawd-awful slow on a 4.

About the author

Leander KahneyLeander Kahney is the editor and publisher of Cult of Mac. He is the NYT bestselling author of Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple's Greatest Products; Inside Steve’s Brain; Cult of Mac; and Cult of iPod. Leander has written for Wired, MacWeek, Scientific American, and The Guardian in London. Follow Leander on Twitter @lkahney and Facebook.

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