Iris Classon
Iris Classon - In Love with Code

(Not so) Stupid Question 305: What is Planned Obsolescence?

The last few days there has been a lot of talk about something called ‘Planned Obsolescence’. As a software engineer I find this topic very interesting, as we as programmers, might find ourselves in a situation where we are tasked with implementing planned obsolescence.

Planned obsolescence is the action of making a product obsolete before its actual lifetime by artificially limiting the lifespan. In other words, the product is programmed or designed to become useless, or slowed down and so limited in its use that a user will be forced to replace the product although the product would still be usable if it wasn’t for the deliberate implemented early obsolescence. Companies will might do this to ‘encourage’ (read: force) users to upgrade and boost sales, and it can also be a way of controlling costs- by deliberately using cheaper material to lower the cost of the product and thus target a low-income market. This is not (necessarily) the same as declaring end-of-life on a software product. Windows XP was supported for 12 years (!), and there were many reasons for ending support for it- and security being one of them. While we are talking about technology companies, let’s talk about Apple- the reason I’m writing this post today. A few days ago news broke out that Apple was facing criminal charges for planned obsolescence, which was made illegal in France in 2015. A while back Apple admitted that they deliberately have been slowing down their devices, as the batteries are wearing out- to extend the life of the phone. By scaling down CPU performance the phone would last longer, but the cost would be a poorer user experience. The alternative would be to let the phone crash/die frequently. Or- as many argued, the best alternative would be to notify the users and let them replace the battery. The significant slowing-down apparently was introduced in the iOS 10.2.1 update and is also mentioned in the release notes:

iOS 10.2.1

iOS 10.2.1 includes bug fixes and improves the security of your iPhone or iPad.

It also improves power management during peak workloads to avoid unexpected shutdowns on iPhone

Is this planned obsolescence? Based on the information I’ve read, I can’t say that it is. It could be a bad decision, although I would personally prefer a slow phone over a dead phone in an emergency situation- so I can still make a call. Planned obsolescence implies intent, and I don’t have enough information to backup a claim that Apple is deliberately slowing down phones to increase sales of newer models. But, the lack of transparency can make it look suspicious, and as we know- we do love a juicy story and it’s easy to jump to hasty conclusions. I do agree with those that say that more transparency would be appreciated. Let users know they can replace the battery. Apple seems to have listened, and published last night an apology, and more details around their thinking in regards to battery life.

First and foremost, we have never — and would never — do anything to intentionally shorten the life of any Apple product, or degrade the user experience to drive customer upgrades.

They also state that:

… Early in 2018, we will issue an iOS software update with new features that give users more visibility into the health of their iPhone’s battery, so they can see for themselves if its condition is affecting performance.

As for France, and the pending lawsuit- I’m would be surprised if HOP (Halte a l’obsolescence programmée - group that filed the lawsuit) will succeed (unless there is some more information that we are unaware of). I like what HOP wants to achieve, but I’m not convinced that they have a good case with Apple. In their claim they say that phones slow down when there is a new phone release, but Apple also releases major updates to the OS around the same time which could explain the spike. Read the complaint here (in French).

From the complaint

If you want to read more about planned obsolescence have read about the Phoebus cartel - a cartel created to engineer shorter-lived lamps to increase sales. From an engineering perspective this is extremely interesting, and I cannot recommend enough that you read the article on the cartel.

What are your thoughts? Planned obsolescence or not?


Leave a comment below, or by email.
1/6/2018 9:18:58 PM
I doubt a large company like Apple makes a move without thinking about it from every perspective. Even if they did mean well, they definitely should have been much more open about it. I wonder if their code took the actual condition of the battery into account somehow before limiting the CPU, or whether they only looked at the age of the phone?

That link was really interesting too - quite a lot of collusion going on. 

Last modified on 2017-12-29

comments powered by Disqus