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Is Apple intentionally slowing older iPhones to make you buy new ones?

iPhone Slow vs Samsung Galaxy Slow

The New York Times cried wolf in late October last year, observing that the iPhone 4 has became more sluggish following the iOS 7 update and wondering, without any kind of data to back it up other than one user’s experience, whether Apple has intentionally slowed down performance on older smartphone models to convince more iPhone users to upgrade. However, the publication is now back with a more scientific approach to the quandary. In a new piece penned by Harvard economics professor Sendhil Mullainathan, the publication draws our attention to the correlation between iPhone launches and the perceived slowness of older devices. Similarly, the study looks at Galaxy S phone slowness and relation to new Galaxy S model launches.

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Mullainathan doesn’t draw any direct conclusion from his findings, noting that while Apple may be interested in having as many iPhone users upgrade to a new model as often as possible, the company won’t want to revert to such tactics, not only because of legal risks, but also because there’s “competition and consumer rationality” to block such actions.

Even so, Harvard economics Ph.D. student Laura Trucco used data from Google Trends to see when users looked most for “iPhone slow” the most, finding that periodically, each year near a new iPhone launch the number of queries significantly increased only to dive back to regular levels in the following months.

Trucco also performed a similar trend for “Samsung Galaxy slow” in Google Trends finding a different pattern. The number of searches for “Samsung Galaxy slow” steadily increased over the years, with no apparent correlation between new Galaxy S model releases and/or new Google Android versions.

Mullainathan doesn’t explain in full the differences between iOS and Android when it comes to releases, OS fragmentation, and other factors that can affect performance perception, but he does say that Apple has both the motive (increase smartphone sales) and the means (control the OS) to slow down iOS performance on older devices, whereas Google lacks the motive, and Samsung lacks the means to do the same thing.

He does however point out that fragmentation can cause a disproportionate response when it comes to handset users complaining about device slowness.

“Because only 18 percent of Android users have the latest operating systems on their phones, whereas 90 percent of iPhone users do, any slowdown from a new operating system would be naturally bigger for iPhones,” the professor writes.

“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,” he added.

Mullainathan further notes that the study has a “big limitation,” as it’s only able to discover correlations, not conclusions. “We are left with at least two different interpretations of the sudden spike in ‘iPhone slow’ queries, one conspiratorial and one benign. It is tempting to say, ‘See, this is why big data is useless.’ But that is too trite. Correlations are what motivate us to look further. If all that big data does — and it surely does more — is to point out interesting correlations whose fundamental reasons we unpack in other ways, that already has immense value,” he writes.

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For what it’s worth, Apple releases a new iOS version each year, usually alongside new iPhone models, with the company trying to make it available to as many old devices as possible, a perceived tactical advantage compared to rival operating systems. Thus, Apple can offer users the same features, and developers have a wider number of potential customers for their apps. However, it’s no secret that iOS is going to run best on latest hardware, which usually offers various upgrades, including processing power and RAM.

Samsung is not in charge of the OS and can’t – and sometimes won’t want to – deal with fragmentation issues aka update its handsets, even flagship models, to the latest Android OS available. Furthermore, the company builds its own suite of TouchWiz UI elements on top of Google’s Android, which can lead to performance issues and could explain why, in time, slower performance is expected even on newer devices.

Google, meanwhile, like Apple doesn’t want a fragmented ecosystem no matter what it would publicly say about Android, which is why the company made sure with its KitKat release that older devices that have as little as 512MB of RAM would be able to run the new OS. That, however, doesn’t mean they’d be running it as smoothly as a last-gen device that packs better hardware.

Neither Google nor Samsung controls the update process on Android devices, which causes update delays, as each carrier has its own update schedule for smartphones. Meanwhile, Apple is able to control updates on iPhones, releasing them at the same time for all iPhone buyers.

The graphics used to show correlations between Google searches and new iPhone and Galaxy S releases follow below.

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he closely follows the events in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises. Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.