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Do Apple and Google Sabotage Older Phones? What the Graphs Don't Show 281

Harvard economics professor Sendhil Mullainathan takes a look in the New York Times at interesting correlations between the release dates of new phones and OSes and search queries that indicate frustration with the speed of the phones that people already have. Mullainathan illustrates with graphs (and gives plausible explanations for the difference) just how different the curves are over time for the search terms "iPhone slow" and "Samsung Galaxy slow." It's easy to see with the iPhone graph especially how it could seem to users that Apple has intentionally slowed down older phones to nudge them toward upgrading. While he's careful not to rule out intentional slowing of older phone models (that's possible, after all), Mullainathan cites several factors that mean there's no need to believe in a phone-slowing conspiracy, and at least two big reasons (reputation, liability) for companies — Apple, Google, and cellphone manufacturers like Samsung — not to take part in one. He points out various wrinkles in what the data could really indicate, including genuine but innocent slowdowns caused by optimizing for newer hardware. It's an interesting look at the difference between having mere statistics, no matter how rigorously gathered, and knowing quite what they mean.
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Do Apple and Google Sabotage Older Phones? What the Graphs Don't Show

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 27, 2014 @08:35AM (#47542301)

    Apple, who continues to provide updates to older phones years after they're released. Some users find these new features slow down their older phones.

    Google, who doesn't have a mechanism to provide updates to almost any of their phones years after they're released. Some users find their phones slow down years after release anyway.

  • Re:Not Just Phones (Score:4, Insightful)

    by cheesybagel (670288) on Sunday July 27, 2014 @09:21AM (#47542471)

    When the old firmware has security issues like the Apple SSL bug it is a bad idea not to update the firmware.

    I do suspect they do not even bother compiling the binaries for the older architecture by switching a couple of compiler flags though. The performance difference is just too big.

  • by jonbryce (703250) on Sunday July 27, 2014 @09:26AM (#47542489) Homepage

    What I find with my iPad 2 is that some websites have a lot more Javascript than they used to, and the iPad 2 isn't really fast enough to cope with them. Previously, those websites would have used flash, which didn't work at all, but generally you could still use the website without the flash plugins.

  • by Shoten (260439) on Sunday July 27, 2014 @10:07AM (#47542699)

    The methodology of testing the hypothesis is to look for google searches about "iphone slow" or "samsung slow". Assumption made is if people search for "iphone slow" Apple might have done something to slow down iPhones. The control group is Samsung which has the same motive as Apple but not the means because it does not control the OS.

    It is a big leap, there could be various other explanations of varying degrees of malice. As the new release comes through, bug fixes for older releases are put on back burner, apps are changed and tuned to take advantage of new version run slower in older version.. Or the way graphics subsystem is organized in iOS might have different bottlenecks based on the display resolution. So as new releases come in, default sizes for buffers and hashtables might change deep in the OS slowing down older apps.

    And if you are going to postulate "Apple might slow down older versions deliberately", why can't you postulate, "Google might spike and skew the history of the past searches to make Apple look bad"?

    There's another problem with his theory as well; as we all know, Android phones don't get many OS updates, if any at all. Every study that checks (using real methods) the Android versions currently in use based on hardware, vendor, or general population finds that unless you bought your phone very recently, there's almost no chance you're running the latest version of Android. So how is it that Google is managing to slow down old phones with code in the new versions of Android in the first place?

  • by QuietLagoon (813062) on Sunday July 27, 2014 @10:15AM (#47542761)
    The concept is called planned obsolescence [investopedia.com], and it has existed for as long as people have been buying things.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 27, 2014 @01:19PM (#47543961)

    Hypothesis one: users' irrational fetish/honeymoon-glow feeling about their old phone is brainwashed away by the advertising for the new phone model so that they're better able to perceive its slowness relative to laptops that cost the same amount.

    Hypothesis two: users aren't searching because they suddenly think their phone is slow. They always thought their phone was slow, but before there was nothing they could do about it. They're searching for reviews comparing the speed of new and old phones, to see if there's really an improvement.

    Hypothesis three: Apple and Google are somehow slowing down the phones without pushing software updates to them (since, except for Nexus, Google isn't even _able_ to time software update pushes).

    Possible journalist approaches: measure the speed of the fucking phones. Ask users why they were searching with a poll on the landing page for the search. Conduct a web poll trying to distinguish hypotheses one and two, shortly after the release of a new phone. Ask Google and Apple if they are slowing phones down, and if they have any historical phone speed measurements they would like to share so you don't have to do it yourself.

    To write the actual article: delete hypotheses one and two, then say "I have no evidence to confirm or deny [complicated hypothesis three scenario] but let me explain how it would work."

    Fuck this guy. Google and Apple deserve, and desperately need, better criticism than this.

  • by BronsCon (927697) <social@bronstrup.com> on Sunday July 27, 2014 @03:48PM (#47544871) Journal
    It's not necessarily a different build setup, provided the basic architecture is the same (e.g. all ARM, all MIPS, or all X86); build once for your base architecture, then package apps and drivers per-device. Yes, Apple has a 32bit build and a 64bit build, but that doesn't necessarily mean they build for every device. What's really being asked here is whether builds are being targeted for specific devices, or whether a single build is being packaged for multiple devices.

    A question worthy of being asked, rather than assuming the answer and looking down an anyone bold enough to realize the question actually deserves to be asked.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 27, 2014 @08:05PM (#47546523)

    Perhaps becausee Apple is a company which bets the farm on their reputation, and customer loyalty. Sabotaging their own customers would be counter productive.

  • by MachineShedFred (621896) on Monday July 28, 2014 @08:09AM (#47548761) Journal

    Oh noes, anonymous coward thinks someone looks like a "stupid dipshit moron" for buying a 2011-model tablet that actually worked, and has been useful for years.

    Is this the part where I say that the previous AC looks like an idiot for using three words in a row that basically mean the same thing? Or is he saying that the GP poster should have bought a Motorola Xoom instead, being the chief competitor to the iPad 2? How'd that work out for all those customers? Maybe a BlackBerry PlayBook or an HP TouchPad? Because anyone who bought those products are still using them today?

    Sorry, AC, but while the GP might "look" like a "stupid dipshit moron", you actually are one.

"What people have been reduced to are mere 3-D representations of their own data." -- Arthur Miller