There are conspiracy theories that blow your mind and make you wonder what the author was smoking. You don’t normally expect to see them in the New York Times.
The upcoming issue of the New York Times Magazine will feature a horribly conceived and poorly thought out article detailing why Apple wants “to bust your iPhone.”
Yep, the premise of the article is that Apple designs the iPhone to fail just around the time it happens to be releasing a new model.
Authored by Catherine Rampell, the article begins with a personal story from Rampell. She relays that her once trusty iPhone 4 began acting up with the release of iOS 7. Performance was slower. Battery life was lower.
From there, Rampell hops on the conspiracy train and doesn’t look back, articulating that Apple is engaging in “planned obsolescence.”
… this isn’t the first time that tech analysts and random crazies on the Internet have noted that breakdowns in older Apple products can often coincide with when upgrades come onto the market. Many have taken this as evidence of “planned obsolescence,” a term that dates to the Great Depression, when a real estate broker suggested that the government should stimulate the economy by placing artificial expiration dates on consumer products so people would buy more.
There’s a reason why this theory is often posited by folks who Rampell herself labels as “random crazies.”
The notion that Apple purposefully diminishes device performance to entice user upgrades is preposterous on its face. The iPhone 4 was released nearly 3.5 years ago. Over time, the battery charges up less. Over time, the device itself is subject to everyday wear and tear. Over time, apps are updated to take advantage of hardware that older devices lack. The end result is a natural decline in performance that has nothing to do with sinister motives from Apple.
Gizmodo’s Brian Barrett drives the point home:
These are technological truths that affect every single smartphone maker. You think your iPhone 4 is slow? Try a Samsung Fascinate. Batteries degrade over time. Software capabilities improve. Saying Apple plans the obsolescence of iPhones is like saying Dole plans the obsolescence of bananas.
In a fast-paced industry like the smartphone market, new technology by its very nature becomes yesterday’s news fairly quickly.
Taking things to even more absurd levels, Rampell attempts to argue that there are sound business reasons as to why Apple might employ a business strategy of “planned obsolescence.”
To conspiracy-theory-hungry observers (and some of the rest of us), it might make sense that Apple would employ this business strategy. The tech giant, after all, has reached near-saturation levels in the U.S. smartphone market. If iPhones work forever, people who already own the devices won’t buy new ones.
This argument is false on all counts. Apple continuously sells new iPhones to existing owners not because old devices mysteriously stop working, but rather because Apple offers exciting new iPhone models that entice users to upgrade even when their existing device works well.
Take the iPhone 5s, for example. It features an impressive new camera, a super-cool new slow-motion video record feature, and of course, Touch ID. Toss in faster speeds and we’re talking about an extremely solid upgrade.
As for saturation levels, there’s absolutely no data to support Rampell’s assertion. During Apple’s most recent quarter, they sold 33.8 million iPhones worldwide, a 26% increase from the same quarter a year ago. Furthermore, the iPhone in the U.S. has an estimated 40% share of the smartphone market, hardly close to anyone’s definition of a saturation level. Worldwide, the iPhone’s share of the smartphone market is about 13-14%..
Economists have theories about market conditions that encourage planned obsolescence. A company has strong incentives to degrade product durability when it has a lot of market power and when consumers don’t have good substitute products to choose from…
When Apple started making the iPhone in 2007, its product was so innovative that it could have deliberately degraded durability without fear. But in the last couple years, the company has faced stiffer competition from Samsung and HTC, among others, which should deincentivize planned obsolescence.
The iPhone is highly regarded for delivering a best-in-class user experience. While some iPhone competitors seemingly ignore things like design and battery life, Apple devotes a tremendous amount of resources towards ensuring that the iPhone is a quality product in all regards. In many respects, quality is Apple’s calling card. To that end, Apple has a strong disincentive to purposefully degrade product performance.
There’s also an argument to be made that Apple works harder than most to ensure its products have as long a shelf life as possible. A 3.5 year-old iPhone 4 can run the latest iteration of iOS. An iMac released back in 2007 can run OS X Mavericks. Speaking of, many users with older Mac laptops are reporting significantly improved battery life performance after installing OS X Mavericks. This hardly sounds like the modus operandi of a company dead set on rendering their products frustratingly unusable prematurely.
Further, Rampell in the excerpted paragraph above proffers a contradictory argument. Rampell implies that Apple today doesn’t have the luxury to deliberately degrade performance because it faces stiff competition from the likes of Samsung. And yet, the entire basis of the article is that Apple is doing just that. In the same breath, Rampell argues that it makes both good and bad business sense for Apple to release iPhones that are destined to fail just in time for a new release.
Rampell next quotes University of Chicago economics professor Austan Goolsbee who states:
Buyers are smart, and if they start figuring out that one of the costs of buying Apple’s products is that they’re constantly nickel-and-diming you, they’ll switch.
Again, there is no data or even anecdotal evidence to suggest that Apple is nickel-and-diming anyone. If anything, cold hard data indicates that the iPhone commands a higher resale value than any other smartphone on the market. Buyers are, in fact, smart. So why exactly are people willing to shell out hundreds of dollars for older iPhone models? Might it have something to do with the fact that iPhones actually hold up better over time than the competition?
On that note, it’s not all that uncommon for folks to sell used iPhones to Gazelle or on eBay for more money than they initially paid for the device. Also interesting is that the resale value on the relatively ancient iPhone 4 — the same device used by Rampell — actually increased this past summer.
All in all, Rampell’s article reflects a rather elementary understanding of the smartphone market and it’s downright surprising that this type of piece is appearing in the New York Times. Though given the Times‘ recent and arguably blind pursuit of Apple related scandals in pursuit of the Pulitzer, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised at all.
A comment from the NYT article sums things up nicely
This article does not belong in the New York Times. It’s as if a high school sophomore wrote it. The issue is not just Apple, it’s not just smart phones and tablets, it’s also PC’s and anything with a chip in it. And it’s not pre-planned obsolescence either. It’s that computer speeds double every 18 months or so in accordance with Moore’s Law. Any IPhone, Android phone, laptop over two years old will be noticeably slower than the newest products. The only way to keep old products relevant would be to prohibit the introduction of newer, faster, more functional products. There’s nothing more to it than that. …
– The author doesn’t realize that software updates are optional and that battery life and speed can be restored by turning off new features.
– EVERY battery ever created has a finite number of charges. Apple’s batteries are no worse than the competition (and they’re definitely better than some).