Software Update – A Technical Requirement or Prudent Sales Strategy?

Published on 09 Aug, 2021

Smartphone companies have always been under the scanner for sending software updates that hamper the performance of products. Electronic products depend on software for being functional and need to be updated regularly. However, the updates slow down the phone or lower its performance. Is it, therefore, a sales strategy of companies to force consumers to continue buying new products? Are these companies deliberately slowing down the performance of older models, pursuing the strategy of planned obsolescence?

Recently, two mobile giants were heavily penalized by Italy’s antitrust regulators for deliberately slowing down the older models of their brand via software updates. This is not a startling discovery as users of smartphones and laptops have suspected this for a long time. The question is why would companies intentionally harm their own brand products?

What are software updates?
Software updates are essential for the smooth running of electronic devices, eliminating any bugs, improving performance, and most importantly maintaining a strong security wall. Any hardware running on outdated software is an easy prey for hackers. Therefore, manufacturers regularly roll out crucial software patches that protect their brand’s laptops, phones, and other gadgets from the latest threats. An update could also include adding features and improving compatibility with new programs.

However, software updates are designed for latest, more advanced models. Hence, when installed in older systems (hardware), they slow down the gadget or dent its performance.

Most consumers discard their phones within three years and look for newer models due to hardware issues such as battery dying, screen breakage or buttons not working. While these issues can be tackled, the software on which the devices run are provided directly by the companies and cannot be checked or changed.

Planned obsolescence – a sales strategy
Could software updates be a part of a brand’s planned obsolescence strategy? Planned obsolescence entails creating products and services with a limited useful life, which helps companies push their newer, more sophisticated models into the market.

There are different types of planned obsolescence:

  • Contrived durability – Companies design products with certain parts that will fail and force consumers to buy these again.
  • Perceived obsolescence – Companies launch newer models of a product and employ clever marketing strategies. Customers are led to believe that by not buying a new model, they are missing out on an exciting experience.
  • Prevention of repair – At times, certain parts of the model become unavailable, or it is expensive to get them replaced. Rather, replacing the entire product is more cost effective.
  • Software updates – Electronic devices like phones and laptops need to be updated with the software provided by the brands; this may cause the performance to slow down.

An example of software update obsolescence is iPhones. In 2020, French prosecutors imposed a fine on smartphone giant Apple for intentionally shortening the lifespan of its older models via software updates. The company said that diminishing battery performance was the reason for the phones slowing down rather than the updates but had to pay a hefty fine.

This strategy is even followed by automobile and consumer electronics companies.

OS flaws in smartphones
Smartphone manufacturers create operating system (OS) updates in line with the requirement of their newest models. A phone upgrade is a complicated process as stored files, photos, and settings are migrated to the new OS. Plus, it is time-consuming, rendering the phone unusable (as it is frozen) all the while the update is on. Furthermore, if the older model has less space, its memory room gets clogged and it may not be able to save files in future. Technically, this is the reason for phones slowing down and their performance being negatively impacted.

Another issue is that software upgrades are designed and tested on blank phones. However, when the same upgrade starts on a user’s phone, it contends with existing files and personalized settings. Moreover, the software, being designed for the latest model, creates issues when downloaded on older phones.

Software updates could well be a part of planned obsolescence. However, is this practice only profitable for companies? Planned obsolescence also gets a boost from consumerism, the ever-increasing desire of consumers for better, more sophisticated products. Fundamentally, it is responding to consumer demand. For example, today’s digital natives do not use the same phone for more than three years. They are on the lookout for innovative features and technical superiority. Therefore, having products with shorter lifespan works for them.

On a larger scale, constant manufacturing and selling also creates jobs and is good for the economy. Plus, it promotes innovation and leads to improvement in the quality of products.

Therefore, planned obsolescence is a vicious yet virtuous cycle and will remain a part of companies’ sales strategy.