The Conspiracy to Slow Down Your iPhone

I feel like I'm about to make myself incredibly unpopular just by stating the facts.

But hey, I work in IT, I'm used to it.

Back in November, I wrote my article The Conspiracy to Slow Down Your Computer. It turned out to be a surprisingly popular article, though I suspect a lot of people who clicked for the title were disappointed. The spoiler is that there is no conspiracy, except perhaps for manufacturers shipping computers with 4GB of RAM, which isn't really enough. I touched on smartphones in my introduction, as they related to software updates and performance, but didn't really go into depth.

So it almost seemed like prescience when, a month later, a group of angry iPhone users got together and launched a class-action lawsuit against Apple, claiming that iOS 9 had "significantly" slowed down their iPhones. They allege that Apple did it on purpose, so that they'd be forced to buy new iPhones.


Whilst I grind my teeth, my friends and colleagues - understandably cynical from a lifetime of watching corporate profiteering shenanigans - give silent fist-pumps of approval. Yeah, THE MAN shall get what is coming to him. You can't force us to buy new phones, Apple! We want to run the latest software AND keep our old hardware.

Umm... Analogy time!

Okay, imagine with me if you will, that everyone in America lives in a trailer. Yes, yes, push away all the classist jokes you've just lined up in your head and stay with me. Some people have small tent trailers, others have "fifth wheel" jobbies, and others still have massive trailers like the ones film stars retire to in order to sip their artisan asparagus water between takes. The point is, if you want to pull a trailer with more stuff in it, you need a vehicle with the right horsepower. A compact car, for example, can't pull a fifth-wheel; you typically need a sturdy pickup truck for that.

Maybe your six-cylinder, light-SUV can pull one of the smaller fifth-wheels, but it's borderline. You need to be careful on steep hills, and you can't load up a whole bunch of extra stuff into the trailer like the truck-owners do. You need to mind your vehicle's towing capacity. However, with a bit of conscientiousness, you might be able to make it work.

You probably see where I'm going with this by now. Your phone's hardware is like a vehicle. It has enough power to tow a certain load - in this case your software, your OS and apps. Newer software has more features - a heavier load - and requires more horsepower from your phone in order to work well.

Imagine if the owner of that light-SUV went out and bought a great big trailer, but they didn't bother checking the trailer weight or their SUV's towing capacity. Then they loaded up the big trailer with a bunch of extra crap, hitched it up, and went jamming up a hill. When their vehicle inevitably stalls or overheats, they go stomping back to the dealership and say: "You said this SUV can tow things! It can't tow my thing! You lied!" The dealer might dare to tell that customer that they are an idiot who exceeded the vehicle's towing capacity.

The naysayers (and the people suing Apple) will say: "But Jesse, Apple claimed that iOS 9 is compatible with the iPhone 4s! That means it should work!" Well, sure? But it won't necessarily work well. As a user, you'll need to be mindful: turn off new features that might slow down the phone or drain its battery life. Don't use apps that run in the background or deliver a load of push notifications. Unfortunately, most users aren't that mindful about optimizing their phone's performance. They just want ALL THE STUFF.

Conscientious, tech-literate users have to decide how far they'll upgrade their phones' OSes; trading off performance against features (and yes, it's always a trade-off). Releases which are compatible (but not optimal) with older phones might be right for users who run a very slim setup with few apps and few features turned on, but very bad for users with tons of apps and features enabled. Successfully suing Apple will only result in a future "nanny state", where iOS updates are blocked from users with even slightly older hardware. Think you can make it work with some tweaking? Too bad, you won't have a choice. If you want the new iOS, you'll have to upgrade your phone.

Older techies like me will remember the Jobs-in-exile 1990s Apple, which often had very strict requirements about which Macs could run the latest Mac OS. As such, users would complain that, by restricting updates to new hardware, Apple was forcing people to buy new computers. Hackers would use tricks to make the new OS versions run on their older hardware, then show how the new software ran perfectly fine as long as a few features were disabled. History has reversed itself, it seems.

So, when it comes to new software on older devices, Apple is damned if they do, and damned if they don't. If they let users install new software on older phones where the compatibility is borderline, users will complain that the newer software slows down their devices, and accuse Apple of trapping them so that they have to buy a new phone. If Apple restricts OS updates to newer iPhones only, users will again accuse Apple of forcing them to buy new phones. It's a no-win scenario.

Apple is guilty of one cardinal sin though: you can't downgrade an iPhone or iPad to an older version of iOS after you've upgraded it. That means that if you install a new OS and decide it isn't performing well with your setup, you're out of luck, short of upgrading to a new phone (with that aforementioned bigger towing capacity). That's a problem, especially for the advanced users who are empowered by choice.

For the record, I myself own an iPhone 4S - I like the smaller size and am not likely to upgrade to the larger iPhone 6 anytime soon. My OS version? iOS 7. That might surprise you, but I've been aware of the risks of installing upgrades for some time. Incremental bug fixes and security updates are important, and I encourage everyone to install them. Full, whole-number version upgrades on the other hand carry some performance tradeoff. Whether I will upgrade my 4S to iOS 8 before I buy a new phone remains to be seen. For the moment, the phone works fine, albeit without the latest and greatest iOS features.

So, to all my friends and colleagues who are undoubtedly now preparing tar and feathers for me, I'll leave you with this axiom: don't hitch your phone to a trailer it can't tow.

"Appz crushin' ur iPhone" illustration © Jesse Schooff/