Apple's Planned Obsolescence: Customer Revolt Brews

Short term, Apple will make more money. Long term, it will annoy, and lose, even ardent device fans.

Jonathan Feldman, CIO, City of Asheville, NC

June 22, 2012

4 Min Read

This just in from Apple: "MobileMe ends June 30. Although there are good standards-based ways to make your contacts and calendars available, we will arbitrarily disable those features in OS/X until you upgrade your operating system and, we hope, purchase new hardware from us."

OK, maybe that's not the way Apple put it, but that's the message I hear. In my personal life, Apple is starting to drive me crazy with planned obsolescence. And now that the iPhone is a part of many of our enterprise deployments, Apple's planned obsolescence will start to drive us crazy at work, too.

As the headline writers pithily put it on a recent David Thier blog on "Every iPhone Accessory You Own Just Became Obsolete." They were referring to Apple's plans to change the dock connector on the next iPhone. "Apple is great at getting us to buy new products, and this may be one its biggest coups yet," Their writes. That's fantastic if you're an Apple shareholder, but it's annoying and expensive if you have to replace a fleet of iPhone accessories every time you replace your organization's iPhones.

The typical knowledge worker who relies on a smartphone has a charger in the car, at home, and at work. During the transition from iPhone 3 to 4, most accessories were plug and play. That's not going to be the case now.

And don't think you'll be able to get inexpensive equivalents of accessories such as car chargers. From all reports, Apple will include a proprietary chip at the port that will disallow unlicensed accessories.

And let's not forget that if you want to keep the phone you've got and not upgrade, Apple's history is to force customers to use newer firmware releases to fix security problems. The "unfortunate" side effect of these software updates is that they make the phones slower, so that your end users will want the organization to buy them new devices. Eventually, of course, Apple stops supporting the old phone altogether, so that your organization must buy new ones.

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Is innovation really supposed to work like this? I don't think so. Here's how it's supposed to work: Supplier comes up with compelling value proposition for buyer. Buyer gladly parts with cash so that buyer can benefit from innovation. This planned obsolescence thing is simply a message that not only will you buy the BMW of smartphones, but you will replace it on Apple's schedule, not yours.

When you're the only game in town, you can act like this. But in a market where there are now many compelling alternatives, not so much.

I continue to be a fan of iPhone-the-platform, versus iPhone-the-upgrade-treadmill. And I maintain that those who selected iPhones rather than Android phones years ago probably face a lower support burden and fewer defects. But I welcome competition to discourage Apple's treadmill tactics, and I'm heartened by a couple of recent developments:

>> Software provider Magnifis has released Robin, which, from what I have seen, can take on Siri, the iPhone 4S' voice assistant, head-to-head. (As I've written before, Siri has such nagging problems that it's not hard to imagine just about any competitor taking it on.)

>> Android phones are getting better all the time. My colleague Fritz Nelson reviewed the Samsung Galaxy S III a few days ago, and he's impressed: "You're going to want this phone." Android will soon have "even more momentum ahead of whatever Apple has up its sleeves," Nelson predicts. Specs aside, if it's a reliable phone with few defects and a standards-based micro-USB dock, it'll be hard for buyers, even Apple fanboys, to dismiss.

You feel that, Apple? Those are the winds of change. It may be temporarily profitable for you to force your customers into spending on upgrades, but a little thing that we call customer lifetime value means that it's stupid to annoy your customers in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

Jonathan Feldman is a contributing editor for InformationWeek and director of IT services for a rapidly growing city in North Carolina. Write to him at [email protected] or at @_jfeldman.

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About the Author(s)

Jonathan Feldman

CIO, City of Asheville, NC

Jonathan Feldman is Chief Information Officer for the City of Asheville, North Carolina, where his business background and work as an InformationWeek columnist have helped him to innovate in government through better practices in business technology, process, and human resources management. Asheville is a rapidly growing and popular city; it has been named a Fodor top travel destination, and is the site of many new breweries, including New Belgium's east coast expansion. During Jonathan's leadership, the City has been recognized nationally and internationally (including the International Economic Development Council New Media, Government Innovation Grant, and the GMIS Best Practices awards) for improving services to citizens and reducing expenses through new practices and technology.  He is active in the IT, startup and open data communities, was named a "Top 100 CIO to follow" by the Huffington Post, and is a co-author of Code For America's book, Beyond Transparency. Learn more about Jonathan at

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