CLAIM

A Harvard study proved that Apple purposely slows down its older model iPhones to coincide with device releases and to boost sales of new models.

FALSE

RATING

FALSE

ORIGIN

A long-circulating piece of technology lore surrounding the release of new iPhone holds that Apple unleashes furtive updates to dramatically slow existing models in the lead up to the release of a new version.

An example of the rumor was illustrated in an episode of the Netflix series The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt:


On 21 September 2017, a blog post strongly implied that a Harvard study had proved the rumor true:

If you were Apple, what tricks would you utilize to increase the sales of your latest product?

If you know corporations, you’d know they use any possible trick they can as a generality to increase their profit: think of how huge a factor it would make in the sale of new iPhones if the old ones became slower.

People have made the anecdotal observation that their Apple products become much slower right before the release of a new model.

Now, a Harvard University study has done what any person with Google Trends could do, and pointed out that Google searches for “iPhone slow” spiked multiple times, just before the release of a new iPhone each time.

The blog, instead of linking to a peer-reviewed item published in an academic journal, cited a 29 July 2014 article published by a British tabloid. That source material similarly and repeatedly referenced a study:

A new study is backing up long held suspicions that Apple slows down older models of its iPhones to encourage users to buy a new release.

The U.S. study analysed worldwide searches for ‘iPhone slow’ and found that the search term spiked significantly around the time of new iPhone launch … The study, compiled by Harvard University PhD student Laura Trucco, follows claims that the Cupertino-based company is deliberately sabotaging its old products.

Writing for the New York Times, Sendhil Mullainathan, a professor of economics at Harvard, described the results as ‘striking’.

The site did link to a 26 July 2014 New York Times “Upshot” blog post authored by Mullainathan, in which he describes the “study” as a graduate student’s casual experiment using Google Trends:

Generally, my students know enough to ignore my grumbling. But in this instance, Laura Trucco, a Ph.D. student in economics at Harvard, followed a hunch. She wanted to see whether my experience was unique. But how? When people become frustrated with a slow phone, she reasoned, they search Google to figure out what to do about it. So, in theory, data on how often people search for “iPhone slow,” as provided by Google Trends, can measure the frustration globally. (Data for only the United States show similar results.)

In the Daily Mail, Mullainathan was quoted as having “described the results as ‘striking.'” However, the context offers a completely different picture:

Yes, phones feel slower over time as they hold more software and as our expectations of speed increase. But the spikes show that the feeling doesn’t grow gradually; it comes on suddenly in the days after a new phone is released.

Yet that’s all it shows: People suddenly feel that their phone is slowing down. It doesn’t show that our iPhones actually became slower. Imagine that someone points out a buzzing sound in your office. Until then, you hadn’t noticed it. But now you can’t hear anything else. Perhaps this is the digital equivalent of that experience: Hearing about a new release makes you contemplate getting a new and faster phone. And you suddenly notice how slow your old phone is.

Mullainathan contrasted the Google Trends search with a similar one involving Android products, noting an absence of similar results and positing:

This data has an even more benign explanation. Every major iPhone release coincides with a major new operating system release. Though Apple would not comment on the matter, one could speculate — and many have — that a new operating system, optimized for new phones, would slow down older phones. This could also explain the Samsung-iPhone difference: 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 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.

The years-old clickbait was revived in September 2017 just as new iPhones were released, with no additional information substantiating the original claim. No Harvard study proves that Apple slows down iPhones down intentionally, and the original post that was rehashed for future articles seemed to contradict — if not outright disprove — the theory.

Sources:

Mullainathan, Sendhil.   “Hold The Phone: A Big-Data Conundrum.”
    New York Times’ The Upshot.   26 July 2014.

Zolfagharifard, Ellie.   “Does Apple Deliberately Slow Its Old Models Before A New Release? Searches For ‘iPhone Slow’ Show A Spike Ahead Of Launches.”
    Daily Mail.   29 July 2014.

AnonGroup.org.   “Harvard Study Proves Apple Slows Down Old iPhones To Sell Millions Of New Models.”
    21 September 2017.