Professionalism/Apple, iPhone Software, and Planned Obsolescence

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Introduction: Planned Obsolescence in "High Quality" Products[edit | edit source]

A shift in mentality[edit | edit source]

Jeremy Bulow states that planned obsolescence is "the production of goods with uneconomically short useful lives so that customers will have to make repeat purchases" [1]. For a general overview on planned obsolescence and its social interface, see the Lentis chapter entitled "Planned Obsolescence" [2]. The concept of planned obsolescence is a recent development. An Ngram viewer of "planned obsolescence" shows that this term began to appear in literature in the 1960s [3]. Product quality was correlated with the amount you paid. However, shifts in manufacturer mentality and consumer design changed this paradigm.

Judith Martin explores this in her opinion editorial entitled "Living with Planned Obsolescence-or, Whaddya Expect, Quality?", published in 1972 [4]. She states "We all used to know that cheap goods were designed to be shoddy, but we believed in luxury ones. Buy fewer things, but good ones that will last, Mama always said". Her reference to her mother indicates this model is of the past. She continues to expand her point, saying "what's happening now is more serious, because it's happening to rich folk". She has noticed that "while [her] plebian appliances now work occasionally...my luxury ones just loll around the house using the guest towels". This trend is seen in Apple products.

Products no more[edit | edit source]

There are a large amount of Apple products that are no longer supported. Apple deems them as "Vintage and Obsolete". Specifically Apple states that products are deemed vintage if they "have not been manufactured for more than 5 and less than 7 years ago". They state that products are obsolete if they "were discontinued more than 7 years ago" [5]. These include Macs, iPods, iPhones, iPads, and others. A full list can be found at https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT201624. Products that went into market as recent as late 2012 are deemed obsolete. Clearly, this indicates that Apple has a limited scope on what is a "modern" product. These products are not supported by hardware or software services.

User self-service[edit | edit source]

Service policies[edit | edit source]

iPhone screens after replacement

Apple’s service policies discourage repairs through price, and disallow independent repair shops. In order to obtain official repair parts, third parties must become ‘authorized’ and pay Apple a fee and a set rate for all products they order. They are banned from performing certain repairs. The higher costs to consumers that this causes and the inability to repair some issues are both signs of planned obsolescence, by inhibiting or outright banning the repair of products the consumer already owns.

Authorized repairs are accused of overstating the amount of work to be done in order to make more money [6]. For example, the CBC reports that one Apple store accused their reporter of water damage and gave an estimate of $1,200 for repair of a faulty screen. An independent repairman found the problem to be one pin which was slightly bent and quickly fixed. The inflated price of repair encourages customers to buy new devices rather than fix their problems.

Unauthorized repairs[edit | edit source]

Apple is accused of fighting efforts by consumers to repair their own devices, which would allow them to bypass expensive authorized repair shops or buying an entire new device [7] . Apple has worked testified against legislation in Nebraska which would require companies to supply repair manuals and spare parts to consumers, and has defeated similar legislation in other states, including New York. Apple recently lobbied to kill an Ontario bill that would have required manufacturers provide consumers with replacement parts [8].

Henrik Huseby, a Norwegian repair specialist, was accused by Apple of trademark infringement for ordering replacement parts for his repair shop [9]. Apple has had US Customs seize shipments of replacement parts in the past as well.

Apple faced criticism in 2016 after TouchID sensor replacements ‘bricked’ the phone, meaning that iOS would show an error if it sensed a non-Apple part and stop the phone from working [10].

This case represents a lack of commitment to user self-service, which encourages users to turn to either expensive authorized repairs or to purchasing a new device.

Pentalobular screws[edit | edit source]

Apple's pentalobular security screw

One of the ways Apple discourages user self-service is with its screws. Since 2009, Apple has used its own, proprietary screw head termed the pentalobular screw [11]. Unlike the most common Phillips or flathead, this screw has five ‘lobes’ that does not fit either screwdriver shape. Many critics interpret the switch as a push to discourage user self-service because most users do not own a pentalobular screwdriver with which to open their phones [12]. Indeed, Apple refers to the pentalobular as a ‘security screw,’ referring to its tamper-proof nature. Furthermore, the screw is only used on the outside of the phone, not for internal mounting of components. According to iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens, “Apple chose this fastener specifically because it was new, guaranteeing repair tools would be both rare and expensive.” By discouraging self-service, users are more inclined to choose between very expensive service or replacing the product altogether. This is where planned obsolescence is evident: when users must buy a new product because their current device is not serviceable.

Throttling the iPhone[edit | edit source]

Apple has been accused of slowing down the iPhone for many years, but the accusations were largely dismissed as conspiracies. In 2017, a Reddit user TeckFire generated interest in this idea when he theorized that Apple throttled iPhones due to battery degradation [13]. Earlier in 2017, iPhone users had reported that their phones were shutting down with excess battery [14]. Apple released IOS 10.2.1 to fix this issue. For context, a phone battery is typically designed to last around 300 to 500 cycles [15]. The battery degrades which lowers the total amount of charge it can contain and lowers its peak power output. When a device uses a lot of resources an older battery can become unable to provide enough power for the heavy load and shut off. TeckFire theorized that Apple introduced software to slow down the peak performance of iPhones so that the older batteries could keep up.

Geekbench Tests: iPhone Performance and Battery Age[edit | edit source]

[16]

TeckFire's Reddit post sparked interest from Geekbench. A Geekbench employee tested colleagues' iPhones to determine if Apple was purposefully slowing down iPhones [16]. They published the above kernel density function graphs which depict the performance score of iPhones running different versions of IOS. A higher peak means more phones are in that range of performance. In the first graph, which depicts iPhones running IOS 10.2.0, there is one peak. At this time iPhone users were reporting that their phones were shutting down unexpectedly. IOS 10.2.1 introduced a fix to this issue. Geekbench's test showed that iPhones running 10.2.1 had multiple groups of phones with performance lower than the single peak of IOS 10.2.0. Additionally, phones running IOS 11.2.0 had larger performance decreases than IOS 10.2.1. These graphs provided the first numerical evidence that Apple likely fixed the sudden shutdown issue by purposefully lowering the performance of its phones. John Poole, the author of the Geekbench post, agreed that Apple was likely determining the health of a phones battery before deciding how much to scale back performance. He warned that the throttling would get worse as batteries continued to age. Poole criticizes Apple for leading consumers to think "my phone is slow so I should replace it”, and not, “my phone is slow so I should replace its battery” [16].

Apple's Response[edit | edit source]

In December 2017 Apple admitted to slowing down iPhones with degraded batteries [17]. They assured the public that the software was included solely to improve the experience of the user. Apple stated that their "performance management feature dynamically manages performance peaks to prevent the device from unexpectedly shutting down" [18]. The performance management software was included on phones less than 1 and a half years old. Loyal Apple supporters insist that the company’s practices benefit those who prefer to keep their older iPhones. These supporters argue that having a slower device is an appropriate trade off for the ability to use their older devices without malfunctions [19]. However, the majority of consumers do not view Apple’s throttling practices in a positive light. By neglecting to disclose the original phone shutdown issues and “secretly” throttling performance instead, Apple failed to ensure that its practices were transparently conveyed to customers [20]. Thus, leading to backlash from consumers and lawmakers. In a statement addressing consumer concerns, the company states, “at Apple, our customers’ trust means everything to us. We will never stop working to earn and maintain it. We are able to do the work we love only because of your faith and support — and we will never forget that or take it for granted” [21]. To actively show their commitment to serving their customers, Apple decreased battery replacement prices by $50 (from $79 to $29) [22]. The company also pledged to be more transparent in the future [23]. A software update released in early 2018 aimed to provide transparency about battery health by introducing features that indicate if the battery’s condition is affecting its performance [22].

Legal Investigations[edit | edit source]

Apple’s efforts to appeal to consumers were not enough to stop a legal investigation into the company’s throttling practices. 34 states, led by Arizona, Arkansas, and Indiana, opened an investigation into the matter. Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich stated that “Big Tech companies must stop manipulating consumers and tell them the whole truth about their practices and products" [20]. He also ensured that he is "committed to holding these goliath technology companies accountable when they conceal important information from users” [20]. The complaint filed by nearly three dozen U.S. states contends that Apple’s complex technical notes about battery management provided “misleading information” about its software updates [24]. Thus, pushing consumers to fix performance issues by purchasing newer, more expensive devices [25]. The claim states that Apple used "unfair and deceptive acts and practices" to increase its sales "potentially by millions of devices per year" [26]. Apple denies that its throttling policies had financial motives but agreed to pay $113 million to settle this investigation in November 2020. While this settlement does not require the company to admit guilt, it does demand that the company is transparent about its battery and power management practices [24].

In a separate class action lawsuit settled in March 2020, Apple agreed to pay $500 million to resolve throttling complaints. Most of the settlement payment will be allocated to consumers with devices affected by the slowdown. This settlement requires Apple to pay affected customers $25 per eligible device but does not require the company to admit any wrongdoing [27].

European lawsuits are also beginning to take shape. In January 2021, a 60 million euro class action lawsuit was filed by Altroconsumo, an Italian consumer association. The suit, which comes in response to the 2017 iPhone update designed to slow performance, seeks to compensate iPhone 6 users similar to U.S. lawsuits. Euroconsumers, a multinational consumer organization based in Luxembourg, has also joined the lawsuit as a part of their campaign to fight planned obsolescence in Europe. Els Bruggeman, Head of Policy and Enforcement at Euroconsumers, wants all Apple consumers represented. “Our request is simple: American consumers received compensation, European consumers want to be treated with the same fairness and respect” [28].

Obsolescence of iPad and MacBook[edit | edit source]

iPad is a line of tablet computers designed and developed by Apple. There are currently four series with at most eight generations of products in the market. The first iPad was released on April 3, 2010, and eight products within three series were released between 2010 and 2014. These products have been discontinued for at least seven years, and Apple indeed has already ended their maintenance and support [29]. While the very first generation of iPad had a lifespan of only two years and five months, all the other seven products were supported for averagely four to five years. The consistency of product lifespans could hardly be a coincidence and may reflect the obsolescence plan on the iPad series. The release of iPad was usually accompanied by the release of new operating systems, which played an important role in the planned obsolescence as well. Upgrades and updates were required for both devices and applications to become compatible with the new systems. In order to encourage users to install the upgrade, Apple also kept pushing upgrade notices to millions of devices. Although the old versions of system were still supported for several months, the incompatibility of applications and the sluggish devices with notifications also urged the users to look for new systems and even new devices [30].

MacBook has a much longer history than iPad. Referring to the Macintosh laptop computers, it mainly consists of two models: MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. Since 2006, all MacBook computer have used the macOS operating system developed by Apple. While the specialized system and softwares similarly contributed to the planned obsolescence, the hardware also played a significant part by increasing the difficulty of self-repairing. In 2012, Apple released MacBook Pro with Retina display. The new model had very different components with the previous ones. The display was fused to the glass, which indicated that replacing the LCD would require buying an expensive display assembly; the RAM was soldered to the logic board and made future memory upgrades impossible; the battery was glued to the case and forced customers to only mail their laptops to Apple for replacements. The new designed pattern made the Retina MacBook the least repairable laptop at that time. It was considered “unfixable, unhackable, and untenable”, and received the lowest possible repairability score, 1 out of 10, from iFixit [31][32]. In 2016, the MacBook Pros with Touch Bar featured RAM, a hard drive, VRAM, and batteries were further regarded as a “war on upgrades.” In new 15-inch laptop, SSD chips were solder inside. It became totally non user-replaceable and blocked the self and third-party repairs [33]. Another change in MacBook hardwares was the switch from USB ports to USB-C ports. In the past the USB ports, also named USB-A ports, were in charge of connecting most outer devices to the laptop, and the USB-C ports, also called Thunderbolt ports in some versions, were usually used for charging only. To promote the new USB-C ports, Apple removed the traditional USB ports on the models introduced in 2015 or later [34]. This change also forced customers to connect to the USB cables with an adapter and therefore added an additional cost to most of the MacBook purchases.

Lessons in Professionalism[edit | edit source]

Transparency is important. Especially when in a situation that may look nefarious if it became public. In Apple's case it is possible that the performance management software was included solely to improve the user's experience. However, it appears unethical when their actions were uncovered by an outside party. Apple's lack of transparency implied to the public that they had something to hide. Another issue associated with this case is that a company can break a product someone else owns through software updates. Users should be able to choose whether to update their operating system unless there are security concerns. When one entity has all of the power it is important to establish checks and balances.

Planned obsolescence can take many forms, including superfluous repairs, making them cost-prohibitive, or making them impossible for the consumer. Apple is accused of all of these forms of planned obsolescence, and faces legal challenges and social ramifications for its decisions. Manufacturers cannot rely on consumer trust anymore. Rather, they must adopt sound policies intended to provide high-quality products and services in order to gain customer loyalty.

These cases should also serve a warning to third parties looking to get involved in repairs. They will face little support from some companies whose products they service, and at worst, resistance including legal challenges to their work.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. https://academic.oup.com/qje/article-abstract/101/4/729/1840176
  2. https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Lentis/Planned_Obsolescence
  3. https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=planned+obsolescence&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cplanned%20obsolescence%3B%2Cc0#t1%3B%2Cplanned%20obsolescence%3B%2Cc0
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  8. https://appleinsider.com/articles/19/05/03/apple-tech-companies-successfully-lobby-to-kill-ontario-right-to-repair-bill
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