Does Apple throttle older iPhones to nudge you into buying a new one?

Does Apple throttle older iPhones to nudge you into buying a new one?

Summary: Can search trends tell us whether Apple hobbles old iPhones to spur consumers into upgrading? Unsurprisingly, the answer is complex.

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Every time Apple releases a new iPhone there's a dramatic spike in the number of Google searches for the phrase "iPhone slow". Does this give credence to the conspiracy theory that Apple intentionally slows down iPhones to encourage you to buy a new one?

If you ever felt like your iPhone got slower around the time Apple released the next edition of the device, you're definitely not alone.

Some digging into Google Trends by Harvard University PhD student Laura Trucco has shown that searches for "iPhone slow" have peaked consistently at the time Apple releases a new iPhone.

The same pattern has occurred since the 2008 release of the iPhone 3G, but what do the spikes mean? Could it show that Apple slows down older iPhones to nudge owners onto newer ones, helping it announce record breaking sales in the weeks after it releases a new iPhone? Or do people just think their old devices have become slower because they're presented with a newer, faster device?

According to Harvard economics professor Sendhil Mullainathan, Apple has incentives not to cripple existing devices in order to prod consumers into upgrading — known as "planned obsolescence" — even though it has, in principle, the means and motive to do so.

The simple reason Apple wouldn't cripple its devices can be found in Android; iPhone owners would switch to a product that has a longer life if they constantly find their devices effectively becoming bricked with each new release. Besides that, there would be legal risks for Apple in pursuing that strategy.

Still, because Apple sells the device and makes the operating system, Mullainathan argues that Apple does in principle have the means and motive to be able to slow older devices. Google on the other hand lacks such an incentive because it doesn't make money on hardware, while Samsung, which does have the same motive as Apple, lacks the means to slow down performance.

Arguing the case for the conspiracy theory, Mullainathan looked for spikes in searches for "Samsung Galaxy slow" and found no noticeable correlation between the phrase and hardware release dates. In other words, that the spikes only happen for iOS devices would support the conspiracy theory that Apple does hobble its devices to encourage upgrades.

Also, the spikes in "iPhone slow" searches occur when it releases a new phone and not when it announces it — it should peak when the new phone is announce if it's really just a perceived slowdown in performance due to knowledge of a new device.

However, the conspiracy theory is undermined by differences in how Apple and Google distribute new versions of iOS and Android to devices.

As Mullainathan notes, one explanation for the Samsung-iPhone difference is Android fragmentation. Currently only 18 percent of devices run KitKat, for example, whereas Apple has shifted nearly 90 percent of its users to iOS 7. Performance degradation caused by an OS update would therefore be more pronounced with the iPhone.

In the end, the correlation between the search for slow iPhones and Apple's hardware release cycle is a cautionary tale in interpreting meaning from data.

"The important distinction is of intent. In the benign explanation, a slowdown of old phones is not a specific goal, but merely a side effect of optimizing the operating system for newer hardware. Data on search frequency would not allow us to infer intent. No matter how suggestive, this data alone doesn't allow you to determine conclusively whether my phone is actually slower and, if so, why," writes Mullainathan.

Read more on the iPhone

Topics: Mobility, Apple, iPhone, Smartphones

Liam Tung

About Liam Tung

Liam Tung is an Australian business technology journalist living a few too many Swedish miles north of Stockholm for his liking. He gained a bachelors degree in economics and arts (cultural studies) at Sydney's Macquarie University, but hacked (without Norse or malicious code for that matter) his way into a career as an enterprise tech, security and telecommunications journalist with ZDNet Australia. These days Liam is a full time freelance technology journalist who writes for several publications.

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84 comments
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  • And, just how, exactly would

    Apple throttle your older phone? It is much more likely that the spike is because people think their NEW iPhone is slow.

    Sheesh.
    baggins_z
    • That Doesn't Make Sense

      Before any one flips out over my comments, please find the graph.

      The peaks are so close to release dates that it doesn't make sense that everyone quickly buys a new iPhone.

      Here is the thing I noticed: the searches fall off very quickly after release and are flat until the next release.

      Hardware doesn't improve on a used phone and annual sales are running at about 1/3d of base (Some will be new, but many will be replacing iPhones) and iPhones are once a year, so, why the quick decline after the spikes?

      Those who have run with their conclusion overlook the other event that happens as a new iPhone is released: there's a new version of iOS.

      A .0 version of iOS.

      Meanwhile, Apple, famously, has a large percentage of its user base install the updates.

      Possible hypotheses:

      Apple's .0 releases have problems which Apple later fixes. Each new phone has better hardware and iOS makes use of the increased headroom. For an older phone, os and apps doing more equals slower phone. Note that while search rates are flat most of the year, the floor has been rising over time.

      People get tired of asking why it is slow and accept their lot in life. (I don't think so.)

      People go out and replace their iPhone with a faster one or an Android. (Maybe, but then there'd be higher ratio of sales to base or negative growth if this was occurring at a significant rate.)

      You may come up with other explanations, but the new os and follow-up patches would seem to fit the sales, spike, and drop patterns better than my other ones, and if Apple throws a magic switch or puts in a staleness-chip to down throttle the phone, I would not expect the searching rate to quickly recede.

      Besides, we all didn't fall off the turnip truck yesterday. When technology advances as rapidly as the processors in smartphones have, no one needs to plan obsolescence, it happens. Right? Or are the 1990s poised to join the 1960s as the decade one doesn't remember if one was there?

      (Note: I think the analysis would more illuminating if they had also expressed the y axis as percentage of iPhone users. Further data regarding average age of phones among the user base over the time axis would be handy. My favorite hypothesis could be rejected with a graph marked by iOS and point-update release dates.)
      DannyO_0x98
      • My Apology

        I didn't explain why baggins_z's point didn't make sense. While iPhones sell more in their first quarter (now that the first full quarter includes Christmas), it isn't as front-loaded as those slow iPhone searches are.

        Also, I've now had three iPhones. The first days are the best. The battery is new, the apps haven't been upgraded yet and enjoy the spaciousness of a new processor.
        DannyO_0x98
        • I think you are bang on the money

          Argh my phone gets slow once I've taken 9gb of photos!

          Argh ios 7 ran slow on my 3 year old iphone 4 (apple actually patched this in 7.1)

          I find the whole article a bit silly really. For starters apple are the only manufacturer providing updated that even last a 2 year service plan. Even google only give you three updates on their nexus. The iPhone 3GS, 4, and 4s will have all had 4 years of updates from launch.

          Is your iphone 4 slow on ios 7? Probably - It was born into a world where retina screens were new and there was no icloud.

          I phone battery life is awful, but to be fair to them, everyone else could take a leaf out of their book regarding updates.

          If you do have a slow iphone, to the point you have to google about it, it's likely not the ios firmware's fault (otherwise EVERYONE would have it. Reset all settings, back up and dfu restore. So long as you don't have 8 bytes available, it should be fine.

          I always hear this from the guys at work bringing us their company iphones 'oh I've already erased and restored' really? You erased your iphone and then put the same information back on? What exactly did you think this would solve?
          MarknWill
      • I had a 3G

        I was so happy with it, until I updated to the latest version at that time (I think version 4.0). Killed my performance, waited for fixes applied them when they came, same issue. Even apple admitted performance issues, then soon after discontinued support for the phone. SO I was left with a laggy piece of crap, and could not roll back (as the older versions were gone). So I left iPhone and refuse to go back.

        Not sure if that was Apples intention to have me upgrade, but it was a poor experience, and one I see happen to many friends time and time again.
        schultzycom
        • Same issue

          Ran into the same issue. Apple gave me a replacement phone when I took it in under warranty. Wife ended up washing phone 6 months later, so ended up with iPhone 4 then anyway.
          Harlon Katz
        • My uberX iphone 4 or something is crap now nice update

          Drops ride requests constantly, I need to use a wifi hotspot on my other phone as a workaround.

          Uber and their apple worship drives me nuts, thanks for the 3.5" screen for gps uber , omfg
          everss02
        • Matches My Experience

          I loved my Iphone 3G until Apple told me to update to IOS 4. My phone became nearly unusable overnight. A few updates came and failed to improve it, then Apple abandoned it and stopped letting later IOS 4.x updates install on it. I limped along for another year hoping the Iphone 4 might be a nice jumping point, but by then Androids running LTE were out (summer 2011).

          Apple forced me to go Android. I bought an Ipad Mini (first one) and find it frustrating to use now. Swiftkey and now the Android keyboard have spoiled me, as have Nexus devices and my Droid Maxx (2013 Motorola phone with same base as the Moto X).
          SvZurich
      • Didn't think about the iOS

        updates. The newer OS probably does run slower on older hardware.
        baggins_z
    • Not really

      I have a 4S that was working surprisingly well. Then I did the latest update and it suddenly became slow. My wife's 5 did the same, and my friends 5S did the same as well. Its rather strange.
      Stuart Becktell
    • IOS versions

      Firstly, Samsung does have the means to slow a phone down.. it's called touchwiz and they do it to the new phones too. only they have faster CPU's to accommodate it. case in point is the GS5.. it has the same CPU as the HTC M8, but the M8 is consistantly smoother and faster (and benchmarks show that to be true too)

      Secondly, the features and functionality of each successive apple iOS update are tailored to the newest hardware, I doubt every much that apple spends much time on coding iOS to produce better results on old hardware. They are more likely to just strip features (like Siri) from old hardware that will struggle with it.

      The result is almost certain to be software optimised for the newest version of hardware, and consequently a slower experience on the previous generations.

      This is likely the same reason that WP7.x phones can't be upgraded to 8.x, because the hardware requirements are so different that if you did put it on them, the experience would be woeful.
      frankieh
    • How? By releasing a new OS for all iOS devices that runs more slowly

      That's what they do, as a matter of fact.

      The question is, do they *mean* to slow old devices down, or is it just the fact that old devices can't handle all the new things in newer OSes that means that they run more slowly "by accident."
      x I'm tc
    • Updated IOS releases.

      That's the only way I can think that Apple would/could do this legally.

      Just as win98/XP are lighter/faster compared to Vista, which was a resource hog.
      GotThumbs
      • Also,

        All the junk APP's people install on their phones to Occupy/entertain the child at dinner or shopping.
        GotThumbs
  • Does Apple throttle older iPhones ….

    For those than can only run iOS6 I would say that they are at distinct advantage !
    5735guy
  • Every smartphone

    I have owned slows down over time. Newer hardware runs newer versions of their respective OS faster. Who knew?
    Low_tech
    • Not every

      You haven't used a Windows Phone yet. All of them are super fast and responsive on all hardware since 7.0 release. Just take a look at the low specs on a Nokia 520, then try one.

      In my experience Android and Blackberry have the biggest variation in performance between phones.
      Sean Foley
      • SF. Give over with the WP we all know you are getting paid by Micro$haft...

        .
        5735guy
        • I highly doubt that.

          My windows phone (920) has received numerous updates, including the update to 8.1, and it runs just as well as the day I bought it nearly 2 years ago.
          thewags05
        • You do nothing to disprove his claims

          Calling someone a paid astroturfer and in a round about way validates their claims as you offer nothing constructive to counter those claims.
          Emacho