Is ‘Planned Obsolescence’ slowing down my older phone?

Yes…and no…and it’s a more than a question of planned obsolescence.

This is the concept that manufactures deliberately make products that fail after only a few months or years in service, forcing you to go back and buy another one.

A common, modern complaint about new software is that it dramatically slows down older phones. A single new update suddenly renders a previous generation phone “completely unusable”.

I had it happen to me (before I moved to Android) with my iPhone 4s. Updating to iOS 7 nearly killed it, and it’s happened to me again, with my Nexus 5 (which as Danny claims was ‘comparatively obsolete’ the moment it was launched).

Now, it is true that older phones get slower. In fact, all products get slower, and worse, and less reliable as they get older. Unless they were made in West Germany before the fall of the Berlin wall. In this case, they refuse to die.

For my iPhone, I did finally update to iOS 7 after shifting to Android, mostly because I wanted to write a comparison article. I was really taken aback simply by just how slow the damned thing had become. On iOS 6, it booted up in under thirty seconds. With iOS 7, it took well over a minute. The irony is that with Android I’ve experienced similar things with Kitkat, Lollipop and now Marshmallow. My Nexus 5 takes about 10-15 seconds longer to boot up with each successive android release. Whilst a clean install helped for a bit, that edge disappeared pretty quickly.

nexus4smaller

Nexus 4….a victim of Planned Obsolescence?

This article has been difficult to write, partly because we disagree over what comes next. The question is “Do you believe manufactures deliberately slow down older phones with successive software updates?”

My answer to that is: probably not. I’m not a corporate shrill, but I’m also not a massive conspiracy theorist. There’s evidence that Google took steps around the release of Kitkat to ensure that the new software would indeed run on older devices. They did this by giving the Kitkat developers throttled phones, to force them to be more creative and producer a leaner OS.

The most likely answer is more to do with development. Newer software is designed around newer phones and newer hardware, to ensure that it can take full advantage of these new devices. Modern phones are usually more powerful than the previous generation. That makes absolute sense, because if modern software did not take advantage of modern hardware, we would be lacking many of the features we enjoy today.

A consequence of making sure that software runs on new hardware is that it then may be slower on older hardware. That’s something developers are usually pretty clued up about. They do try and keep backwards compatibility for as long as possible.

When backwards compatibility is no longer realistically achievable, they dump older products, like how iOS 6 only worked on the iPhone 4 and better, which was at the time the best part of 3-4 years old.

The reason anything older than an iPhone 4 lost support was that they [the first generation, 3G and 3Gs] lacked front facing cameras for (shudders) selfies. It was probably at this point that Apple decided continuing support for these older products was no longer worth there while, and that it was necessary to move these people onto newer products.

Despite this, Apple went on to release several 6.X.X. updates for the 3G and 3Gs after they had basically been dumped for newer versions. Whilst these updates added no new features, they did ensure that the devices remained safe and secure for several years.

If you treat software like a video game, and the phone like a games console, very few people expect to be able to play GTA 5 on a PS2. The world just simply doesn’t work like that.

Okay, that’s a slightly unfair comparison. GTA 5 in fact pushes the PS3 pretty much to its absolute limit. It impressively shows what improvements can be made through optimisation when the developers are faced by lower end hardware. Google may have been hoping to achieve something similar during the development of Kitkat.

‘Planned Obsolescence’ has never been proved conclusively. It mostly comes from the fact that modern products are made out of cheaper materials, but then again, are cheaper than their older versions when adjusted for inflation. Some are even cheaper when not adjusted for inflation, and that’s impressive. You should expect something that is made cheaply to fail more readily than something isn’t. Under the same mantra, you should expect a cheap, lower end phone to become obsolete much faster than a flagship, though a shared lack of some key hardware features may bring their inevitable demise much closer together. An example of this would be if both lacked a fingerprint scanner or camera, for example.

If Planned Obsolescence was proved in a scientific and repeatable study, it would be a pretty remarkable (if not entirely surprising) revelation. News that manufactures wanted to get more money from us by forcing into new products faster would not be news for a lot of people.

In the case of phones, this process is probably a lot less deliberate. Waking up and finding your phone no longer supports the latest operating software is a happy accident for manufactures, rather than a deliberate plot.

Jacob

Write a variety of articles, when I get the time. Usually do more longform and analysis than I probably should. Also an editor.

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