My four-year-old iPhone 6s Plus is too good to upgrade, and that should worry Apple

Planned obsolescence may not be enough to drive iPhone upgrade sales. Model year practices of the early auto industry offer up some fascinating parallels.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Apple's practice of model year phones and planned obsolescence is nothing new. In fact, the practice dates back to the 1920s, GM's Alfred Sloan, and the blossoming, pre-depression auto industry.

The Ford Motor Company produced the Model T from 1908 to 1927, a total of 19 years. Let's think about that for a minute. Ford produced essentially the exact same vehicle, the first mass-produced vehicle targeted at the middle class of the time, for nearly two decades. That would be as if Apple sold the original iPhone from 2007 all the way into 2026 without introducing a single new model.

As much as the Model T transformed transportation, the iPhone -- introduced 99 years after the Model T -- transformed communication. The Model T gave consumers reliable, reasonably affordable transportation. The iPhone gave consumers the ability to turn what was previously just a phone into a pocket computer and internet device. Both were so revolutionary at the time that consumer adoption was rapid, enthusiastic, and widespread.

There is a gotcha to the kind of widespread success both Ford and Apple experienced: Saturation. After a decade or so, sales begin to stagnate. Not only have all the early adopters snapped up the new hotness, but mainstream consumers and even what marketing folks called "laggards" have made purchases.

At the same time Ford was producing the Model T, General Motors was producing its own vehicles. By the middle of the 1920s, GM had begun developing a strategy for managing saturation. It did it by both stratifying product offerings into a "ladder of consumption" and introducing planned obsolescence in the form of vehicle styling.

The ladder of consumption idea was embodied in GM's brands: Chevrolet for the less affluent; Buick for the reasonably successful; and Cadillac for those with money and the desire to flaunt it. The idea was that as consumers became more successful, they'd buy higher-end vehicles to show off that success.

But that still didn't drive enough sales. Engineering-driven Henry Ford was content to keep selling the Model T until the end of the 1920s, but the marketing-driven Alfred Sloan wanted more sales. By changing up the style and look of cars each year, as well as adding a few new features, Sloan was able to create perceived styling obsolescence, designed to drive consumers back into showrooms more frequently than was strictly necessary.

The term "planned obsolescence" goes back to 1932, when a real estate broker by the name of Bernard London published a wacky paper entitled, "Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence." His idea was that if the government could mandate that consumer products reach end-of-life more frequently, consumers would be forced to buy more, and -- ipso-facto-boom -- the economy would have to pick up. Thankfully, that proposed law never made it onto the books.

That said, the idea of planned obsolescence had legs. While many associates planned obsolescence with designing products to cease functioning at a certain point, there's more to it than that. In 1954, industrial designer Brooks Stevens gave a talk in which he described planned obsolescence as "Instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary."

Apple and planned obsolescence

Apple, in the 21st century, has built both functional and styling-based planned obsolescence into the DNA of the iPhone.

Every year, Apple introduces new models for its flagship iPhone product. While Apple doesn't name its new models by the actual year of the introduction, the parallels to the auto industry model year practice are pretty strong -- even to the point of new models being introduced in the early fall to take advantage of the new TV season and run-up to the holidays.

Some years, Apple makes big technological improvements. Other years, Apple introduces new colors and styles, along with a spec bump and some new camera features. Those yearly product introductions drive style-based planned obsolescence specifically to "Instill in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary."

Even though Brooks Stevens used that phrase 65 years ago, you can almost hear Jony Ive's dulcet British accent intoning the same words while a new iPhone is shown on a stark, white background. I'm going to miss Jony's vocal presence at this and future Apple events.

Apple also maintains functional planned obsolescence. iOS is generally supported on a given model of iPhone for five or six years. Once iOS upgrades are no longer supported, more and more apps will fail to run, and older phones become less and less usable.

My four-year-old iPhone

My wife and I each have a 2015-vintage iPhone 6s Plus. In the years since we bought those iPhones, Apple has introduced five generations of new phones.

But here's the thing. Our four-year-old iPhones work perfectly.

In April, I paid fifty bucks for Apple to replace my iPhone's battery. We did the same for my wife's phone, but they bungled the upgrade and actually had to give her a new device. So, since the battery is the only real consumable with these phones, we're both essentially rocking new phones, even though the model itself is almost half a decade old.

More to the point, nothing in the iPhone 7, the iPhone 8, the iPhone X, or the iPhone Xs has proved compelling enough to convince us to upgrade. In fact, Apple has taken away features (the headphone jack, Touch ID) that we value and use. Sure, the new models are a little faster each year, the cameras are objectively better, and the screen is a newer technology.

But still, there's nothing new I can do with the newer phones that my trusty 6s Plus can't do.

Upgrading would cost us about $2,500. If we were going to upgrade, we'd want the models with the most storage and the most screen. But why, with so little new value, would we want to spend that to replace our perfectly good phones?

Going back to our discussion of vehicle model years, historian and former Librarian of the United States Congress Daniel Boorstin, in his book The Americans: The Democratic Experience, explained:

Sloan's annual model change, and the accompanying ladder of consumption, came closer than any earlier American institution to creating a visible and universal scheme of class distinction in the democratic United States of America.

Boorstin also said that Sloan turned car ownership into a "visible and easily understood symbol of personal progress." This applies to iPhones so well that if you didn't know this was written 45 years ago to discuss 1920s GM cars, you could easily have thought it was written this year.

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Is it any wonder why iPhone sales are declining? Despite new model year introductions year-after-year, the changes inherent in the new iPhone models of the past five generations are so superficial that even early adopters like me are holding off buying new devices.

Rumor has it that next year's iPhones will support 5G, and that will drive model year sales. But I'm not so sure. I'm not convinced that 5G is compelling enough for consumers to drive unit sales, and there's a lot of FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) surrounding 5G.

If Apple wants to convince satisfied iPhone users like me to upgrade, it needs to come up with something more compelling than a new camera back and a faster processor.

What about you? Are you planning to upgrade your iPhone this season? Let us know why (or why not) in the comments below.

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