Will the phone in your pocket really self-destruct in two years?

Tamar Makov and Colin Fitzpatrick,

29, October, 2018





This week Italy slapped major smartphone manufacturer Apple with a €10m fine for ‘planned obsolescence’. Coined by Packard in the 1960’s, the term planned obsolescence’ is commonly used to describe a practice where manufacturers deliberately limit the functional lifespan of the products they produce, to make room for their newer models. Much like the Banksy’s “Girl With Balloon”, set to self-destruct at a certain price tag, smartphone manufacturers supposedly slow down the speed of older devices intentionally, so that consumers would flock to the stores and buy new ones. But though it might be appealing to blame Apple for ‘forcing’ consumers to replace their iPhone, by pushing OS updates carrying ‘slowness’ Trojan horses, the reality is not so straight forward.


Firstly, in most cases, based on research currently in progress at Yale and the University of Limerick, installing the infamous iOS upgrade actually improved the overall performance of most newer and older iPhone models. As was evident even when the throttling was first exposed, the ‘slowdown’ affect was limited only to phones that had such depleted batteries they couldn’t handle the load demand of the new, and more sophisticated, operating system. While we can argue about whether we actually need such improvements, or if batteries should be able to last longer, the “batterygate” event is better interpreted as an effort to improve the user experience rather than diminish it.


But even more to the point, if Apple truly wanted to shorten the lifespan of its older models, wouldn’t it be easier (let alone cheaper) for the company to simply NOT provide an iOS upgrade at all? This would likely be a far more effective way to get people to replace their older iPhones. So yes, the company was sloppy in its communications, and yes, it probably should have let consumers know in a clear and transparent way that their phones would automatically switch to power saving mode, but isn’t a sloppy update for older models better than no update at all?

Let’s consider the bigger picture. Currently, smartphone manufacturers are not legally obligated to provide any hardware or software support (such as updates)- even for their newest models. Beyond slowness, no software updates could expose consumers to serious data and security breaches. Therefore, for all practical purposes, a consumer could buy a phone today, only to discover a week later that it is no longer secure. leaving consumers to fend for themselves when it comes to software and hardware malfunctions is a far greater issue than sluggishness. Thus, we would argue that examining how long companies actually provide support for their older models is a much clearer indication of ‘planned obsolescence’. It is important to note that neither of us have ever work for Apple, received any funding from the company, or have any connections to the company, other than owning an iPhone 6 (Tamar) and an iPhone 7 (Colin).


So while fining big –tech is appealing, wouldn’t consumers be better served if instead, policy makers were to focus on passing regulation mandating that producers provide support for 3, 4 and even 5-year-old phones? Beyond its direct implications, such legislation would also send a strong, normative message, that consumers should expect devices to last more than 2 years. As such, we believe that ensuring longer support would be a more effective approach to tackle planned obsolescence and extend the useful lifespan of smartphones.