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Is Apple Guilty of Planned Obsolescence?

Planned obsolescence has hit the headlines again, with a French lawsuit against Apple for slowing down phones and 17 US states pushing for new legislation allowing people to fix their own products.

But what is the impact of this on consumers and what should be done about it?

What is planned obsolescence?

Planned obsolescence means manufacturers deliberately designing products to fail prematurely or become out-of-date, often to sell another product or an upgrade – a practice that is barred in some countries. Some manufacturers also restrict consumers’ ability to repair their products – by using digital locks or copyrighted software, using incompatible screws or gluing components together, or by refusing to share their repair manuals. Some add clauses to their user agreements so people (often unknowingly) agree not to fix their own products. Although sometimes this is within the law, as consumers purchase more connected products their expectations of what they can and can’t do with a product they have bought are challenged.

For consumers this means their products don’t last as long as they could, and even small problems have to be dealt with by an approved repairer – sometimes at greater expense, distance and delay, especially if they don’t want to invalidate the warranty. This is an inconvenience for many, and one which arguably hits poorer and geographically isolated consumers harder.

The lifespan of electronic goods is becoming shorter, with the number of defective appliances replaced within five years increasing from 3.5% in 2004 to 8.3% in 2013. At the same time, with increasingly smarter tech, such as that used in phones, e-waste and resource requirements increase with each new model. Not to mention the danger to health associated with the kind of recycling of components that takes place in the informal sector, particularly in developing countries.

So why are popular tech companies coming under the spotlight?

In December of 2017, it was found that Apple was deliberately ‘throttling’ – slowing down and turning off features in older models of its phones. They claim this will ensure the batteries function better and the phone won’t turn off suddenly. But others suspect it is a strategy to push consumers towards a new upgrade. Now French prosecutors, following lawsuits from users in the US and Israel, are investigating Apple over the allegations under the country’s law against planned obsolescence. Italy’s antitrust organisation is also investigating both Apple and Samsung for the same issue. Against this backdrop, Apple announced it would allow throttling to be turned on and off on its phones.

Apple planned obsolescence explained

Our phones’ batteries are now mainly based on the Lithium-Ion technology. The chemical behavior of the battery worsens according to the amount of charge/discharge cycle. After 500 cycles, the battery only has 80% of its battery capacity left (but the phone OS recalculates a level so that it displays a “charge” of 100%). This means that if you have a 3000mAh battery, after 500 cycles, you will really only have 2400mAh.

Battery ageing usually goes in pair with a loss of battery power, especially on peak loads management. You might have encountered this situation, your phone or PC has 10% of battery and all of a sudden the level drops; and as it usually happens with a low battery level, your phone shuts down without giving you any notice. This is what Apple describes on its blog.

In order to limit that phenomenon, Apple tries and limit peak loads by limiting the CPU frequency. Then, there is usually less peak loads. However, on the phone, there are other big consumers (GPS, radio cell…). We can even wonder if Apple isn’t slowing down other components.

Before that, we need to go back on this whole cycle story. Is it inevitable? A cycle directly is connected to the phone consumption level, which itself depends on a few things:

  • Hardware consumption
  • OS consumption
  • Your use (amount of calls, video, etc)
  • Applications consumption

For the first two points, manufacturers usually try and make efforts. When it comes to the use, you are the one managing it. However, there is very little communication. For application consumption, it isn’t inevitable (it is actually GREENSPECTOR goal).

Once you have that in mind, is Apple responsible for obsolescence? If so, is it planned obsolescence? First off, the actual cause for obsolescence is distributed: is Apple responsible for the overconsumption of specific applications? Some manufacturers try to solve this issue by [putting a finger on consuming applications]. 

Apple doesn’t show much zeal on this point. Application designers: 0, Apple: 0. 

When it comes to usage, Apple provides the strict minimum in terms of communication. It is way more hype to communicate on the launch of an animated emoji, than this after all. It kind of makes sense though, users love it. It is also more interesting for media: publishing the endless queue stories for every new version released never gets old. Apple: 0, Media: 0, Users: 0.

Overall, 0 for everyone, so a shared obsolescence! However, the thing the most debatable about Apple acknowledgement of battery ageing (which is real), isn’t the whole slowdown phenomenon, it is the lack of communication. Users are smart enough to understand a message like “Your battery is getting old, we recommend a slowdown of your phone: Yes, No (I prefer changing battery)”. But again, this doesn’t meet the “hype” requirements and the product would look “too technical” (which is the case). With this last point and Apple not sending alerts to its user about slowdowns, the user cannot be accountable and act either way. It doesn’t know all the facts necessary to assess the situation. It most likely will be a lack of parameters that will potentially make it go choose the renewal option. And in this case, yes, Apple is doing planned obsolescence.

France is taking Apple to task for slowing down older iPhones with software updates.

Under French law it is a crime to intentionally shorten lifespan of a product with the aim of making customers replace it. The country has fined the tech giant $27.4 million for "deceptive commercial practice by omission".

Consumer watchdogs in the country say owners of older iPhones should have been notified that upgrading their operating system in 2017 would have resulted in worse performance. (Apple admitted to throttling the phones three years ago, prompting lawsuits and eventually forcing the company to offer discounted battery replacements as compensation.)

The fine will let Apple avoid a public and potentially embarrassing trial around the matter.

"This is a historic victory against scandalous ready-to-rubbish practices, for consumers as well as the environment," Laetitia Vasseur and Samuel Sauvage, co-founders of Halt Planned Obsolescence, which pushed French prosecutors to open the inquiry, told AFP.

The pair have not ruled out filing claims for additional damages for iPhone users.

Apple has apologised after facing criticism for admitting it deliberately slows down some ageing iPhone models.

The company said it will replace batteries for less and will issue software in 2018 so customers can monitor their phone's battery health.

Some customers had long suspected the company slowed older iPhones to encourage customers to upgrade.

Apple admitted slowing some phones with ageing batteries but said it was to "prolong the life" of the devices.

In a statement posted on its website, the firm said it would reduce the price of an out-of-warranty battery replacement from $79 to $29 in the US for anyone with an iPhone 6 or later. In the UK the prices will drop from £79 to £25.

It said it was pushing ahead with measures to "address customers' concerns, to recognise their loyalty and to regain the trust of anyone who may have doubted Apple's intentions".

"At Apple, our customers' trust means everything to us. We will never stop working to earn and maintain it. We are able to do the work we love only because of your faith and support - and we will never forget that or take it for granted," it said.

The firm has had eight separate lawsuits in the US filed against it over the matter, and had also been facing additional legal action in Israel and France.

Apple acknowledged earlier that it does deliberately slow down some models of the iPhone as they age.

It said it had made changes to the iOS operating system to manage ageing lithium-ion batteries in some devices, because the batteries' performance diminishes over time.

"Lithium-ion batteries become less capable of supplying peak current demands when in cold conditions, when they have a low battery charge or as they age over time, which can result in the device unexpectedly shutting down to protect its electronic components," the company said.

It also emerged that the tech giant's chief executive Tim Cook had been ordered by the firm to only use private jets for both business and personal transport for security reasons.

In November of 2017, Apple was forced to release an update to fix a security issue with its Mac operating system that made it possible to gain entry to a device and administrative powers without a password

It is bad for the environment

Upgrading to the latest computer or cell phone model has become a habit for us and it’s one that is actively encouraged by the companies manufacturing our devices. This practice of planned obsolescence is nothing new, but now with the components and chemicals needed for our tech gadgets, we need to start considering how planned obsolescence is harmful to the environment.

Just like good and bad cholesterol, there is good and bad planned obsolescence – the business practice of consciously limiting a product’s lifespan. This may come as a surprise to many people, since planned obsolescence usually has a negative connotation. As with cholesterol, it’s important that we understand what planned obsolescence is, how it can be good and bad, and what we can do to fight the bad kind.

The good types of planned obsolescence are “value engineering” and “functional obsolescence.” Value engineering is a design process that seeks to use as little material as possible in a product while still delivering an acceptable lifespan. It also suggests that all the parts in a product should fail at about the same time, so that none are “overbuilt” relative to the rest. Functional obsolescence is when a genuinely superior product is introduced, making the old one comparatively less desirable.

The bad kind of planned obsolescence consists of the introduction of superfluous changes in a product that don’t improve utility or performance. This might best be described as “pseudo-functional obsolescence.”

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