Professionalism/Apple, iPhone Software, and Planned Obsolescence

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

A shift in mentality[edit]

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]

There is 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]

Service policies[edit]

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]

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]

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]

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 that it can contain and lowers it's 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 [16][edit]

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 then 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]

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. Apples lack of transparency led to backlash from its customers. In response Apple slashed the price of battery replacements by 2/3rds and pledged to be more transparent in the future [19].

Lessons in Professionalism[edit]

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]

  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
  4. https://search-proquest-com.proxy01.its.virginia.edu/docview/148331397/439C05550C784C7APQ/1?accountid=14678
  5. https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT201624
  6. https://appleinsider.com/articles/18/10/09/cbc-video-claims-apples-repair-policies-are-abusive-but-proof-falls-far-short
  7. https://9to5mac.com/2017/02/15/apple-nebraska-right-to-repair/
  8. https://appleinsider.com/articles/19/05/03/apple-tech-companies-successfully-lobby-to-kill-ontario-right-to-repair-bill
  9. https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/a3yadk/apple-sued-an-independent-iphone-repair-shop-owner-and-lost
  10. https://www.zdnet.com/article/apple-error-53-is-not-a-bug-its-a-feature/
  11. https://ifixit.org/blog/14279/apples-diabolical-plan-to-screw-your-iphone/
  12. https://www.cultofmac.com/77814/is-apple-guilty-of-planned-obsolescence/
  13. TeckFire. r/iPhone - PSA: IPhone slow? Try replacing your battery! (n.d.). Retrieved May 5, 2019, from https://www.reddit.com/r/iphone/comments/7inu45/psa_iphone_slow_try_replacing_your_battery/
  14. Tung, L. (2017, February 24). IPhone 6, 6s sudden shutdown? We've almost fully cured issue with iOS 10.2.1, says Apple. Retrieved May 5, 2019, from https://www.zdnet.com/article/iphone-6-6s-sudden-shutdown-weve-almost-fully-cured-issue-with-ios-10-2-1-says-apple/
  15. Johnson, K. (n.d.). How to Know If Your Cell Phone Battery Needs to Be Replaced. Retrieved May 5, 2019, from https://www.techwalla.com/articles/how-to-know-if-your-cell-phone-battery-needs-to-be-replaced
  16. a b c Poole, J. (2017, December 18). John Poole. Retrieved from https://www.geekbench.com/blog/2017/12/iphone-performance-and-battery-age/
  17. Tibken, S. (2017, December 21). Here's why Apple says it's slowing down older iPhones. Retrieved May 5, 2019, from https://www.cnet.com/news/apple-slows-down-older-iphone-battery-issues/
  18. IPhone Battery and Performance. (n.d.). Retrieved May 5, 2019, from https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT208387
  19. Patel, N. (2017, December 28). Apple apologizes for iPhone slowdown drama, will offer $29 battery replacements. Retrieved May 5, 2019, from https://www.theverge.com/2017/12/28/16827248/apple-iphone-battery-replacement-price-slow-down-apology