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No, New York Times, Apple Doesn’t Want to Bust Your iPhone

At first, I thought it was my imagination. I noticed the sad old New York Times was becoming a bit sluggish, as if they’d publish whatever came to mind about Apple, without any kind of fact-checking or editorial oversight.

Turns out that it wasn’t my imagination, because Apple doesn’t want to bust your iPhone, despite what Catherine Rampell’s New York Times Magazine article, “Why Apple Wants to Bust Your iPhone,” has to say.

Rampell’s piece starts with the observation that her iPhone 4 slowed down and seemed to have worse battery life after she upgraded to iOS 7. She then asked “a lot of people” — we’re left to guess whom — and it turns out, this happened to them as well. After four sentences of exposition, the article continues with 900 words detailing how Apple is deliberately hampering old iPhones with iOS 7 so everyone will go out and buy new hardware.

Based on the same analysis, I assert that the New York Times is in league with my optometrist, because at this point I rolled my eyes hard enough to break my glasses. There’s really no way to admire the complete and utter wrongness of this article without addressing it point for point.

One — Rampell says she called tech analysts who said that iOS 7 “was making older models unbearably slow.”

But that was iOS 7.0 if she upgraded at its release on 18 September 2013, whereas the current iOS 7.0.3 was released on 23 October 2013, about a month after the initial release and a full week before her article was published.

Although situations vary, the word on the street from actual users of the iPhone 4 (and iPad 2) is that iOS 7.0.3 largely resolves these speed issues, in part due to being able to turn off iOS 7’s animations. I don’t know what the New York Times Magazine’s lead time is in the digital age, but is it too much to ask that a story be spiked when its initial premise ceases to exist?

Two — Rampell writes, “Apple phone batteries, which have a finite number of charges in them to begin with” — like all batteries in the history of electricity — “were drained by the new software.”

Technically, of course, software doesn’t drain batteries, but I’ll excuse the sloppy language, and further assume that Rampell meant to include the words “more quickly” in that sentence. This could also easily be answered by the “did you check again with today’s iOS 7.0.3?” question.

In addition, assuming Rampell’s iPhone 4 was purchased in 2010 or 2011 (only the 8 GB model was sold as new more recently), that gadget has seen somewhere between 500 and 1,500 recharge cycles. Yes, using an iPhone battery repeatedly tends to make it run out more quickly.

I would suggest that perhaps there’s confirmation bias involved here because non-technical people are likely to pay closer attention to battery life after the operating system changes radically.

Three — She continues, “So I could pay Apple $79 to replace the battery, or perhaps spend 20 bucks more for an iPhone 5c. It seemed like Apple was sending me a not-so-subtle message to upgrade.”

Since Apple makes far more than twenty bucks when you buy a new iPhone, then yes, I think she’s being sent a not-so-subtle message to upgrade to an iPhone 5c or 5s. But the message comes not via some hidden code deep within iOS 7, maliciously sucking iPhone 4 battery life, but in the feature set of the new models: a larger screen, the faster A6 or A7 chip over her existing A4, the smaller Lightning connector, the improved onboard Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, support for faster LTE cellular data, and the iPhone 5s fingerprint scanner that makes it seem like we’re living in a Philip K. Dick novel, alongside every other improvement in three newer generations of iPhones.

Also, after reading years of articles explaining (correctly) that the true cost of an iPhone on contract is the total cost over the lifetime of the contract, suddenly an iPhone 5c costs only $20 more than a replacement battery? So the true cost of an iPhone, apparently, is whichever number is most convenient. We’ll ignore, for the moment, that, by Rampell’s logic, the free 8 GB iPhone 4S would be an even better deal than a new battery.

Finally, I can’t resist pointing out that the iPhone 4 battery is easy to replace yourself. A new battery and the necessary tools (yes, the pentalobe screwdriver is unusual) cost about half what Apple charges.

Four — Love the sourcing. She writes, “This isn’t the first time that tech analysts and random crazies on the Internet have noted [this]….”

She said “random crazies,” not me. To my way of thinking, if I wanted to make a solid argument worthy of publishing in the New York Times, I’d be reticent about lumping my experts together with random crazies. And I’d at least get a tech analyst to speak on the record; they rarely notice or care when they sound like Internet nutjobs.

Five — Here we come to the nut of the matter: “Many have taken this as evidence of ‘planned obsolescence,’ a term that dates to the Great Depression…. To conspiracy-theory-hungry observers (and some of the rest of us), it might make sense that Apple would employ this business strategy.”

Again, she’s the one who’s parenthetically throwing her lot in with the tinfoil-hat club. There are so many things left to say, such as:

  • Apple didn’t force her to upgrade to iOS 7, although they do make it easy for someone to do so unwittingly. And Apple does prevent downgrades to iOS 6, which is less than ideal (see “Lion and Mountain Lion Still Available, Unlike iOS 6,” 25 October 2013).

  • She’s using an iPhone that could date to as early as 2010 and that has received as many as three free operating system upgrades in that time. Three years and three major upgrades is far better than in the Android world, where smartphones are lucky to get updates at all. And of course, if her iPhone 4 hadn’t been eligible for iOS 7, we’d be hearing about the “rapid abandonment of Apple hardware” as an excuse to push upgrades.

  • Some performance issues are undoubtedly related to specific apps, not to iOS itself. It’s entirely possible that some updated apps perform worse on iOS 7 on older hardware than the previous version did in iOS 6. That’s not Apple’s fault.

At this point it’s worth switching to an alternative perspective about how Apple drives upgrades. Rampell’s article was published one week to the day after the release of OS X 10.9 Mavericks, which is available for any Mac that could run Mountain Lion, including hardware dating back to 2007.

Plus, Mavericks is free, and improves the performance and battery life of older and newer Macs. The fact that Apple is doing this for hardware that sells for $1,000 and up — sometimes way up — is a blatant clue that planned obsolescence is not Apple’s primary strategy. That should have been equally obvious to Rampell’s assignment editor before this piece ever saw print. That’s not to say that Apple will support old hardware forever; obsolescence is inevitable, but as Adam Engst showed in “Apple’s Planned Obsolescence Schedule” (2 November 2011), Macs generally have full support for 4–5 years, and iOS devices get it for 2–3 years.

What is Apple’s strategy? I’m not qualified to wrap it up in a tidy bow (or to write about it for the New York Times, apparently), but I would note that my MacBook Air from 2011 works perfectly well, and even better now that it’s running Mavericks. Like my iPhone 5, my MacBook Air is far from obsolete. Still, it doesn’t have 12-hour battery life, or USB 3.0, or the latest graphics processors, or 802.11ac Wi-Fi, or any of the other improvements that the MacBook Air has seen in two generations.

So why would I want to replace my iPhone or MacBook Air? Because the newer products are wicked cool. Maybe I am qualified to wrap it up in a tidy bow after all.

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