Software bloat is not an Apple invention

Smartphone

The New York Times reporter Catherine Rampell has caused a stir with her article ‘Cracking the Apple Trap‘, in which she insinuates that Apple are employing planned obsolescence to slow down older devices and force customers into buying new products.

It’s certainly a common complaint in the IT industry, one most often directed at Microsoft and it’s Windows operating system. Search for ‘software bloat‘ and you’ll see what mean:

Software bloat is a process whereby successive versions of a computer program become perceptibly slower, use more memory or processing power, or have higher hardware requirements than the previous version whilst making only dubious user-perceptible improvements.

But it’s not as sinister as is being made out. Operating systems evolve over time resulting in improvements, usually fancy new user interfaces, graphics or features. These require extra computing ‘power’, be it a faster processor or more memory to work effectively.

What we often see is slick new software trying to run on older hardware. While it might still function, there are signs that it struggles and this is where you experience freezing, sluggishness or reduced battery life due to the processor having to work harder.

From Apple’s perspective, they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Which would attract more criticism, not supporting iOS 7 on iPhone 4 at all, or stretching legacy devices to their limits in order to deliver the same customer experience to as many customers as possible?

The iPhone 4 was released in June 2010, so three years of supported operating system updates could hardly be considered “planned obsolescence”. Let’s not forget that not so long ago it was nearly impossible to update the software on your mobile phone. Apple were pioneers in using software update technology. It’s not unusual now to have consumer mobile contracts lasting 18 or 24 months, this is testimony to the longevity of smartphones.

If anything Apple is guilty of doing too much to appease their loyal customers. Deliberate software bloat is just as likely to drive customers away from Apple’s products as it would force them into begrudgingly buying new hardware. What we’re talking about is technological progress and the need to lead through innovation.

The iPhone 4 was a hugely successful product globally and Apple risked alienating many millions of customers by not by including them in the much heralded iOS 7 update. Having as large a base of customers all at the same software level also helps keep Apple’s application ecosystem vibrant. Developers are keen to exploit the latest features and customers are hungry for the next killer app. By reducing software fragmentation Apple aims to keep all elements of the ecosystem happy – and maintain a healthy revenue stream as a result.

As a lapsed Apple fanboi I have no vested interest in defending Apple. I converted to Android mainly due to price and flexibility, and the realisation that I mainly use Google services. I do still have an appreciation for Apple’s products however and I understand their motivations. Apple’s business model is not about box shifting, it’s about being at the centre of the digital home through a range of connected products all offering the best possible customer experience.

At a more practical level, if you’re content running iOS 6 on your iPhone 4 then my advice is to stick with what you have. If you are tempted by iOS 7 then just be aware of the consequences of running bleeding edge software on three year old hardware.

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