When September rolls around you can always count on three things – the kids will go back to school, the days will get shorter and cooler, and Apple will release a new iPhone.
Like clockwork, Apple has released a new iPhone – and a new version of its mobile operating system – once yearly since it first unveiled the flagship smartphone in 2007.
The product cycle is so fast, rumours about the iPhone 8 began circulating the web even before Apple had unveiled the new iPhone 7.
But the company is increasingly coming under fire for engaging in a marketing practice known as “planned obsolescence” – a method of making products with shorter lifespans, or making current generation products seem obsolete in order to sell a “new and improved” version.
A petition created by online consumer group SumOfUS in July accused Apple of “sabotaging” devices with software upgrades designed to significantly slow down older models and force users to upgrade.
“Anyone with a perfectly functional iPhone or iPad bought two years ago would do well to ignore the prompts to ‘Install Now,’” reads the petition.
“But Apple will be pushing upgrade notices to millions of those customers anyway, because every frustrated user with a sluggish device is another sales prospect.”
The petition has since been signed by over 300,000 users urging Apple to extend the lifespan of their devices.
What is planned obsolescence?
The concept of planned obsolescence is not new – the marketing tactic was popularized in the 1920’s by Alfred Sloan, president of General Motors, when he created “model years” for cars.
It started with the 1923 Chevrolet. The car itself featured a new exterior and flashy cosmetic features, but the framework and mechanics were exactly the same as the cars GM had been producing for years.
Adding the model year to the name made the product seem desirable and new, despite the lack of changes.
But the entire tech industry – not just Apple – is often accused of using planned obsolescence thanks to consumer demand for things like smartphones and laptops.
For example, according to research from Green Alliance UK, the average laptop has a high likelihood of breaking within three to four years, which could help drive sales.
“As business became our dominate paradigm, we’ve adapted to this idea that change and innovation is the most important thing in the world,” Joanne McNeish, associate professor of marketing at Ryerson’s Ted Rogers School of Management, told Global News.
McNeish believes the smartphone market in particular tends to drive planned obsolescence because the market is so competitive.
WATCH: Apple unveils the iPhone 7
But the marketing expert said consumers often point the finger at Apple because they have been such a dominate player.
“Their brand persona is very arrogant – it attracts people’s attention. There is nothing we like better than watching someone who can do no wrong suddenly stumble and appear to be faltering,” said McNeish.
“It’s something they are renowned for and it comes from a place in their brand where they say, ‘This is what’s best for you.’”
But, if the SumOfUs petition is any indication, a growing number of consumers seem to have had enough with Apple telling them what’s best.
A smartphone that keeps consumers satisfied for five years doesn’t exist
Some experts argue that consumer attitude is driving quick product cycles.
“We’ve entered a world where having the latest, most capable phone in our pockets is something that’s expected – it’s not a luxury,” said Neil Bearse, director of marketing at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business.
“Because of the sophistication of our devices, they are becoming increasingly disposable as the next thing comes out.”
Bearse noted that because of the growth and development we’ve seen from smartphones over the last few years, it’s unrealistic for consumers to think a five-year-old smartphone will keep up with new devices.
That being said – some have pointed out that Apple’s latest iPhone innovations have been lack lustre.
“It certainly feels like Apple (and, to be fair, its rivals) aren’t really coming up with mind-blowing breakthroughs lately. So there’s a big difference between lusting after tech that really seems better — and feeling like you’re being forced to “upgrade” to something that’s just slightly better,” technology journalist Rob Walker.
“I suppose they could solve the problem by blowing our minds with amazing new improvements and breakthroughs — but, easier said than done.”