The most exciting thing about Apple’s WWDC keynote wasn’t about new hardware, it was about old iPhones. Apple vowed Monday that the new iOS will not break old iPhones and will in fact make them faster, directly addressing the planned obsolescence conspiracy theory.
The theory goes something like this: tech companies sell hardware that is designed to break, generally aligned with the release of a new product, so that you have to buy something new on a set time schedule.
There are many layers to this theory that make it hard to prove whether planned obsolescence actually exists—for example, devices without replaceable batteries are definitely going to become unusable because, eventually, the lithium ion battery won’t hold a charge. Is this planned obsolescence? Kind of, yes! But there’s also the more mundane kind of obsolescence in which your phone starts running slow and eventually doesn’t get app and operating system updates anymore. This doesn’t necessarily make your phone obsolete, but it is annoying as hell.
A viral New York Times article last year delved into this type of obsolescence last year: “A New Phone Comes Out. Yours Slows Down. A Conspiracy? No.” In that article, Brian Chen posited that software upgrades timed with the release of a new phone are to blame for a sudden spike in searches for “iPhone slow.”
It makes sense: With most new versions of iOS, Apple stops supporting some of its older phones, and older phones that do get the new iOS often slow down because most apps get updates, and new features often run poorly on older phones. This is a bummer, because “don’t update your phone” is generally bad security device, and it makes little sense to buy a new phone simply because a software update slowed down one that otherwise worked fine.
The most interesting thing Apple announced at an otherwise mundane WWDC this year, then, is that it is releasing iOS 12 to every phone that could run iOS 11. More importantly, it has vowed that iOS 12 will be faster on every iPhone, not just new ones.
Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, said Monday that the biggest improvements will come on old iPhones.
"We’re focusing our efforts especially on the oldest devices," he said. "While it’s still early days we’re excited with the results that we’ve seen.”
These improvements will apparently be most obvious on things like launching apps, getting the keyboard to pop up, and swiping to open the camera, which, in my experience with older slow iPhones, has indeed been a problem.
It remains to be seen whether iOS 12 will actually make the iPhone 6 faster, especially with third-party apps. But it’s important that Apple is at least paying lip service to phone longevity, and appears to be trying to optimize its new software for old hardware. It’s not sexy, but it’s a small step toward making our electronics less disposable.