Planned Obsolescence: Do Tech Companies Decide When Your Devices Live or Die?

By Danny Brown

The term ‘planned obsolescence’ has been thrown around a lot these last couple years, as fears emerged that tech companies were sentencing your phone to certain death whilst rubbing their hands with glee. But is the dilapidation of your mobile malevolently planned by evil CEO overlords, or is it just half-life?

Most of us first heard the term when French prosecutors investigated allegations of Apple cursing their iPhones with a predetermined, hard-wired lifespan. Planned obsolescence is illegal under French law, as it’s a crime to intentionally shorten the lifespan of a product to coerce consumers into purchasing a newer model. Apple was caught purposefully limiting the speed of the system on a chip (SoC, the component which houses the processor, memory, cache, wireless network connections and, sometimes, camera components) through firmware updates. In response to the information being announced, Apple announced it was in an effort to increase the lifespan of the battery, as running the SoC at full speed for over long stretches of time has detrimental effects on the battery. This is true: batteries are extremely volatile, and both the safety and life of a battery must be seriously considered by manufacturers. Remember the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 battery explosion debacle?

Apple isn’t the only one intentionally slowing down their phone’s batteries, as Samsung was also exposed. The Italian competition authority, AGCM, launched an investigation earlier this year, subsequently fining Apple and Samsung €10 million and €5 million respectively for the planned obsolescence of their smartphones – the first ruling of its kind. Both companies are keen to mention how much faster their next phone is in their annual keynotes. But do they mean faster than a brand new previous generation phone, or faster than a neutered one? The uncertainty is a concern – but to some extent, Apple’s alleged pursuit to preserve battery life holds water. Millions of users worldwide, particularly in Asia, still use the 5S from five years ago – an impressive feat considering the shorter lifespan of some equivalent consumer technologies.

Apple’s battery issue, however, isn’t the only point of contention. There have been several ‘-gates’ in Apple’s library in recent years. Bendgate was, and still is, a huge deal; for those unaware, a large number of customers found their iPhone 6 and 6S Plus bending in their pockets. This didn’t just affect the cosmetics of the device – the nature and placement of the bend meant that the connection between the screen and the printed circuit board (PCB) came loose. This prevented screens from registering touches and sometimes caused them to stop working altogether. To exacerbate things, Apple first refused to help and told customers to pocket their device differently, asking full price for repairs. It then emerged that Apple knew the whole time. During a class-action lawsuit against Apple, Judge Lucy Koh made parts of the documentation of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus available to the public. The documents demonstrated knowledge within the company that the iPhone 6 was 3.3x more susceptible to bending than the iPhone 5S; and that the 6 Plus was 7.2x more susceptible. Apple knew, yet they feigned ignorance and tried to articulate a solution behind closed doors; later models of the phones were found to have more adhesive on the PCB.

Apple’s iPhone family of systems is no stranger to planned obsolescence controversies, with some spawning class-action lawsuits

Planned obsolescence isn’t exclusive to mobile phones. The reason your phone might have lived a short life is likely that you use your phone a lot more than any other device, and by extension, it has to get charged more often. The unfortunate reality of lithium ion batteries is that, after a few hundred cycles, factors like high temperatures and plain old age decrease their performance. That said, PC hardware draws power from the mains, and yet they, too, have been suspected victims of planned obsolescence. There exist mountains of claims that software and driver updates cause machines to slow down over time, and although there is some truth to this, it’s not always explicit planned obsolescence. It’s always been popular opinion that Nvidia purposefully hamstrings older graphics cards by rolling out driver updates which are unoptimized for all but the newest graphics cards, but the likeliest reality is that you might just be confusing a crippling update with an unstable or buggy one which might not be optimized for your setup. Even then, these are normally amended; the Windows 10 October Update inadvertently deleted files, causing audio problems until mid-November when most of the bugs had been fixed.

Planned obsolescence is nothing new. From 1925 to 1939, The Phoebus Cartel, an international conglomeration of all the major lighting businesses and manufacturers in the early 20th century, was responsible for reducing the working time of lightbulbs from 2500 to 1000 hours. They even raised the price! This enterprise, whose goal was purely to force repeated sales, originally planned to operate this way for thirty years, but apparently there was a war in 1939 which disrupted the plans of many.

Companies may give devices a set life-span, but not only is this down to inherent limitations in hardware, it’s also the natural evolution of the industry. We would not have devices as capable as today’s without the constant hardware upgrade cycle. It can seem daunting that the cost of a new phone is similar to that of a high end laptop, but the hardware and software have proven to be viable long-term investments. The recent iOS 12 software release was a seemingly incremental update in the way of new features, but it was optimised in such a way that devices as far back as the iPhone 5S were included, and now run much faster and more efficiently. The same can be said for MacOS, Windows and Android; the newer software is a lot less bloated and a lot more efficient. This will likely lead to greater device lifespans, rather than contrived death sentences.

Apple, Samsung, Nvidia, and countless other tech companies are surely indictable for their fair share of ignoble practices – but the upgrade cycle is the lifeblood of the industry. It fuels constant innovation and development, and whilst tech companies ought to be more transparent about product design and post-launch interference, smartphones currently enjoy a scale of longevity far greater than they ever have. Planned obsolescence is indeed a real issue – but in a majority of cases, performance compromise in the name of device health is a more probable cause than money-grubbing CEOs polluting your iPhone with pseudo-cancer.