SK Babu


Revisiting Apple’s ‘planned obsolescence’

iOS updates may not be deliberately slowing down on older devices

Update: A couple of months after I wrote this post, Apple finally admitted it does slow down older devices via new iOS updates, supposedly to prevent them from crashing because of failing batteries. I did wonder if I should take down this post. But on revisiting it, I found that most of my arguments are still valid despite Apple’s admission. So I let it be.

I had written about Apple’s planned obsolescence a few months ago. It had some harsh thoughts about Apple, which were probably the result of my iPad 3 turning sluggish following an installation of iOS 9. What really upset me was there was no easy way to uninstall iOS 9, and go back to iOS 8.

However a couple iOS upgrades later, I am inclined to give Apple the benefit of doubt. I must admit this change of mind was partly influenced by the fact that I had explored the Android side, and realised the grass wasn’t particularly greener over there.

The simple fact is a new OS is designed to run on newer hardware, and there’s no way it will run seamlessly on older hardware. This is true not just for Apple but any phone. Let me explain with just one aspect of new hardware, its RAM.

My previous Android phone, the Xiaomi’s Mi4i had 2GB RAM. Whereas my current Android the Redmi Note 4 has 4GB RAM.

The old phone slowed down when I loaded a beta version of MiUI 9 (a Android Nougat fork or customised version for Xiaomi phones). But one good thing about Android is that it is more geeky, and I quickly spotted a revealing stat. The Mi4i only had 500MB of free RAM, with no apps running. Whereas the Redmi Note 4 on the same OS has around 1.6 GB of free RAM, with no apps running.

Newer phones have more free RAM which allows apps to load faster and perform better

Basically a new OS uses more RAM to run its new features, and there will be less RAM left for apps to run on older phones. So my Mi4i struggled to perform while the Note 4 chugged along smoothly. I feel that even iOS, which is better at managing RAM, is affected by this issue.

The important thing here is that RAM is just one of the many bits of hardware that makes a new phone’s hardware better than an older one’s. Like new processors, graphic processors, improved sensors, and many other components which a layman like me is not even aware of.

There is no doubt an element of ‘planned obsolescence’ with Apple. They could find ways so that performance on older phones are not hit badly by a new OS. Maybe make alternate versions of the new OS that will use less system resources. But I guess it does not make business sense to divert too much resources to developing new versions of OS for old phones.

Having said that, I think Apple is indeed taking a slightly different approach to this issue in India. They are probably influenced by the fact that India is a cost-sensitive market, and seem to be developing cheaper models of old phones that run well on the new iOS. The first one in this series is the iPhone SE. It has the same size and looks of the iPhone 5S, but most of the innards are of the iPhone 6S, and it costs just ₹19000 ($290). My wife has this phone and I can vouch that iOS 11 is running smoothly on it. The strategy seems to be working for Apple. Though it has only 3% of India’s mobile market, the iPhone’s higher prices means that in terms of sales value, Apple is №3 in India, and is expecting sales of $3 billion in the country this year!

Looking back on my iPad misadventure with iOS 9, I would go about it differently if I could do it again. I would run a beta of the new OS on my phone before taking a decision on whether to install an OS. Simply because you can uninstall a beta iOS if you find your device is struggling. Besides, installing public betas of iOS these days is pretty simple as Apple wants as many free testers as possible after the Maps debacle.

In fact, that’s exactly what I have done on my iPhone 6S+. (My beta adventure is recorded in a previous post.) The phone didn’t show any signs of crashing, slowing or excessive battery usage which are the most common complaints by new users of an OS. Based on that, I decided to go ahead and get iOS 11.

There was one little twist in this tale. To install iOS 11, you need to first uninstall the beta iOS 11, and then download the official iOS 11. However I kept procrastinating over this till one fine day I got a message saying that iOS 11.1 beta is available for download. It seemed that since I hadn’t uninstalled the beta, Apple assumed that I didn’t mind continuing to be a beta tester. Oh, well, I have always been the one who rushes in where angels fear to tread, and so I continue to merrily beta-test away.

However, be warned that betas can be glitchy, and are not for people who dislike surprises. Like for a while, my lockscreen notifications used to be only half visible. The positive side is you get to see interesting new features before the risk-averse majority. Though I must say it’s sometimes hard to say if it’s a new feature, or an old feature that I was unaware of, or a glitch. Like right now, my iPhone starts playing music automatically the instant it connects to my car’s music system via bluetooth, even if the music app had been turned off on the phone. I have no clue why it does so, but it’s cool!

I feel the risk element is a bit exaggerated as Apple releases relatively stable betas to the general public, and does this only after ironing out its serious issues via beta releases to developers. However I do take one precaution. I avoid installing the beta the day it arrives. Like after the iOS beta 11.2 was announced, I waited a day before installing it. If I see panicked screams on the internet about the beta crashing the phone, I hold off on the installation.

As for my expedition into Android land, there was a bright side to it. Unlike higher priced iPhones, my Mi4i only cost ₹10000 ($150). So when it slowed down, I just exchanged it for my current phone (Redmi Note 4) at a net cost of ₹8500 ($130). That’s kind of acceptable, unlike iPhones where even older models like the iPhone 7S+ retail for over $1000 in India. The price difference does show in quality. For instance, my Android’s camera is not comparable to an iPhone. But my Android has frills like extra storage via an SD card, the ability to read files off a USB pendrive, not to mention software goodies like MiUI 9’s split screen apps, quick switching between two apps, and more. If I still prefer iOS to Android, it’s probably because I have been on Apple forever.

To sum up, obsolescence, planned or unplanned, is going to inevitably happen as long as technology is improving at today’s rapid pace. We may not be able to stop it but there are ways to live with it. All we have to do is decide which of these ways suits us best.

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