Saturday, July 26, 2014

Does Apple deliberately slow down old iPhones?

I often grumble to my graduate students that every time a new iPhone comes out, my existing iPhone seems to slow down. How convenient, I might think: Wouldn’t many business owners love to make their old product less useful whenever they released a newer one? When you sell the device and control the operating system, that’s an option. ...

But there are two simple reasons that planned obsolescence might not maximize profits. First, the legal risk. Second, competition and consumer rationality should combine to thwart this strategy. All a competitor needs to do is to offer a smartphone that doesn’t become a brick as quickly, and more people should buy it.

But these are theoretical arguments. And my experience, though constituting a sample size of one, is empirical. ...

Laura Trucco, a Ph.D. student in economics at Harvard, followed a hunch. She wanted to see whether my experience was unique. But how? When people become frustrated with a slow phone, she reasoned, they search Google to figure out what to do about it. So, in theory, data on how often people search for “iPhone slow,” as provided by Google Trends, can measure the frustration globally. ...

Because this data is available weekly, she was able to cross-reference these searches against release dates of new phones. The charts show the results, which are, to say the least, striking. In the top chart, there are six distinct spikes, and they correspond to releases of new iPhones.



Perhaps... hearing about a new release makes you contemplate getting a new and faster phone. And you suddenly notice how slow your old phone is.

To test if this is the reason, we can use an important difference between Apple and Google Android. ... Google has the means (it controls the Android operating system), but not the motive because it doesn’t make money directly from selling new hardware. Conversely, Samsung or other sellers of Android phones have the motive but not the means. ...

The second chart shows searches for “Samsung Galaxy slow.” In this chart, there are no noticeable spikes or anything correlated to the release of new Galaxy phones. Try other types of Android phones, and, similarly, there are no new spikes. This is suggestive, though it’s important to note that new releases of Apple products inevitably draw much more media attention than those of other phones.

Still, if attention on new devices is what makes old ones feel slow, why are the spikes on Apple product release dates, and not when the company announces the new products? In 2008, for example, the iPhone3G was announced a full month before its release. There was a spike at the release, but not at the announcement.



This data has an even more benign explanation. Every major iPhone release coincides with a major new operating system release. Though Apple would not comment on the matter, one could speculate — and many have — that a new operating system, optimized for new phones, would slow down older phones. This could also explain the Samsung-iPhone difference: Because only 18 percent of Android users have the latest operating systems on their phones, whereas 90 percent of iPhone users do, any slowdown from a new operating system would be naturally bigger for iPhones.
--Sendhil Mullainathan, NYT, on an Apple conspiracy theory