Ho, Ho Ho-hum iPhone Slowdown

Ho, Ho Ho-hum iPhone Slowdown: a reader asks…

I heard on the news that apple is intentionally slowing down older iPhones.  Needless to say this seems to be like planning for obsolescence. Argh.  I’d like to learn if apple now being discovered might stop this practice, and which phone models are affected. I notice with the 11.0 upgrade and since my iPhone 6plus has been slower opening any app, and even voice activation like Siri and texting.

The story you’re reading is journalists sensationalizing a non-story that’s been around (and known about) for years, at least among technophiles (and engineers). As new versions of iOS (the operating system) are released, they push the hardware harder and harder. The operating system is designed primarily for the current hardware release, so it naturally taxes older iPhones harder than current iPhones.  If Apple didn’t force a reduction in processing power usage for older iPhones, they’d burn through their battery very much more quickly, and make last year’s problem (iPhones shutting down) even worse. Not to mention forcing the iPhone to draw a much higher amount of electricity from the battery, which adds much more heat (and nobody wants flaming iPhones!).

So yes, your iPhone will be slower with the newer iOS versions, and that’s, from an engineering standpoint, completely normal. Here’s a metaphor:

  1. You buy a new car, and it gets you from point A to point B in style and quickly
  2. Next year, you decide to add a trailer hitch and start pulling another car behind you. Your car’s top speed drops and everything wears quicker and works slower
  3. Next year (now in year 3 of your iPhone’s release), you add a 2nd car behind the one being towed.  Your car can no longer climb even a gentle hill and overheats all the time. It’s time for a new car!


The metaphor breaks down a bit in that you can breathe new life into your iPhone 6Plus by taking it to an Apple Store and having them put in a new battery. It costs $80 or so, and with a new battery your iPhone will work faster. That’s because the circuit Apple included measures the state of the battery to determine how much to slow things down. So a new battery means the system isn’t artificially slowing down.

It still won’t be as fast as a new iPhone, simply because a new iPhone has newer, more powerful hardware. Back to the car metaphor, a new car will have a more powerful engine/drive train and be able to more easily tow weight behind it than an older car (with a smaller engine/drive train).

There’s not much you can do to change the situation, you really have to take the iOS updates because they always include security improvements that patch holes and stop hackers. That’s just a fact of our digital life. So you have to put up with a slower iPhone as time goes by. I think that’s why Apple started their upgrade program, so that folks could essentially ‘lease’ their phone and get a new one each year. I know that flies in the face of the old ownership model, but that is also the direction we as consumers are moving, particularly in consumer tech. We’re now seeing software (like Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Suite) have moved to the subscription model, and lots of online services (Software as a Service, or SaaS) with a monthly cost. The popularity of ride services like Uber and Lyft mean car ownership is moving towards a shared (very short-term lease) environment. This is the trend and direction we’re moving as a society. For better or worse…

And if you consider everything else you buy or use, obsolescence is a fact of life. Engineers and developers are always coming up with new stuff, and refining and polishing existing stuff. Even shovels have seen upgrades over time, necessitating a new purchase. With technology moving so much faster, it’s no wonder a bit of consumer tech is obsolete as soon as you get it home. Just because this change happens faster with consumer technology doesn’t change the fact that everything changes (ha, see how I worked in ‘change 3x!). It’s not really planning for obsolescence as it is the march of progress. Just because some journalists found this not-hidden-at-all feature of the iPhone and sue-happy lawyers and plaintiffs are trying to make a case out of it doesn’t mean that Apple has some nefarious plan – any more than any other manufacturer (of anything) has a nefarious plan.

The ultimate ‘planned-obsolescence’ consumable is food, as soon as you eat it you need to buy more. We don’t complain. With a house, as soon as you move in, you discover things you wish it had but doesn’t (hence the booming home improvement business). We complain, but live with it. With a car, next year’s model has bells and whistles you wish yours had. We vociferously complain, but live with it. That fast and efficient computer you bought last year is eclipsed by the new models this year. We hate that, but trudge onward with our older hardware. The common thread in all this is that if you choose to buy and hold consumable goods, you are accepting that they will degrade over time and/or be lagging in the features you (newly) discover you need. Pretty much everything is ‘consumable’ and the rate that a thing is consumed varies widely by factors that, for the most part, you can’t control.

Update: in response to a large public outcry (memories of Antenna-gate, anyone?), Apple is dropping the price of battery replacement for most late-model iPhones from $79 to $29 for most of 2018. A new battery will restore your older iPhone to its normal operation (which will still be slower than a new iPhone).

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