You're making me buy a new phone

My iPhone SE 2016 is a good one. It’s easy to handle with one hand. The screen is more than decent. For most things the camera is good enough. It has a headphone jack. Good battery life. The Touch ID works faster than Face ID.

I dropped it on the pavement a few times. No problem, only the casing has a few scratches and dents. To you it may look like a piece of junk now, but to me it’s like that proverbial old pair of jeans.

Now you may think that it’s slow as mud in a pond. But, contrary to my experience with previous models, the iPhone SE actually got faster with iOS updates!

Black and white picture of my 2016 iPhone SE's lock screen with a black wallpaper.
It’s 2023 and this is still a really good phone.

None of the currently supported iPhones is as small and light as my current phone. They all are more expensive. And I believed technology was getting smaller and cheaper each year!

I don’t want a new phone. But I’m probably buying one.

Why replace a perfectly functioning product?

I mentioned my six-year-old phone is a pretty nice thing. Lately I’m experiencing a few issues though:

  1. Starting some apps takes really long, like 10–20 seconds. I think it’s because today’s apps require more RAM than their older versions.
  2. Some apps get reset when I’m trying to multitask. That’s particularly annoying trying to decide if I should change trains at the next station and switch between the train ticket app and Google Maps.
  3. Some apps get slow and unresponsive Resetting my phone helped, but then within a week or two, the same apps are slow again.
  4. I can’t install some recently updated apps, including a health app I want.
  5. For no apparent reason, Safari acts like there’s no internet connection. Rebooting solves that until a week later.

Interestingly, except for that last point, Apple have improved, making old devices usable for longer. It’s the app makers who decided that users with older devices aren’t worth the effort.

And I can understand that. When I write code for websites, I want to use the latest browser features too. They typically make it easy to create something that used to be difficult and require a lot of work. But most of the time, web developers can apply new features as enhancements. For example, if I use the latest CSS layout features (subgrid! clamp!), I write it in such a way that browsers that don’t support that can still show a usable, readable layout.

With mobile apps it’s different. When developers use new technologies, they often end support for certain devices. There’s no slightly less fancy version: only the new and improved version. I’m not entirely sure why this has become common practice. Apple allow developers to release different versions for different platforms. I guess it has to do with managing development complexity; it’s not just the app code, but also the APIs the app connect to. Maintaining multiple versions of one app using different frameworks is essentially means maintaining multiple apps.

You’re making me buy a new phone

No not you, you! I mean you people who decided how apps are built and distributed.

You decided that you wanted to use some framework/feature/API and save developer time. Which is odd. Because consider how much time you spend trying to not harm the environment in your free time: shopping for sustainable products, bringing your reusable cup, recycling. And then think of the minutes you save with new programming stuff compared to the number of iPhones discarded because of that.

You decided that if less than 1% of your users use a certain old device, it’s no longer relevant. Which is odd, because to many businesses, 1% of users can make the difference between profit or loss.

You decided that it’s okay that once I update an app, I’ve to stick with that version even if it’s performing worse than the old version.

Who am I even addressing?

I want to keep my old phone, but I don’t think I will for long. And no, you are not saying I should get a new one. It’s just like I feel I should.

We could blame Apple. Maybe it’s because I freelanced for them and met kind people there, but I think they’ve improved a lot. My iPhone 3G was slow to the point of being unusable after the last update that happened already 3 years after its launch. The iPhone SE 2016 with iOS 15 would be working totally fine if it weren’t for the apps I’m using.

I can’t really blame developers: with the current employment situation, they probably just want to produce as much as they can and not get fired. Engineers shouldn’t be defining such requirements anyway. If we let that happen, we’d only have command line interfaces for Linux desktops. That’s what I gather from the comment section on Hacker News at least.

Then there are the product managers and designers. They define target groups, right? An essential part of design is considering the context in which is product is used. The phone on which your app is running seems to be kind of an important factor. Oddly, I can’t remember a single time when a team asked me about this kind of thing other than ‘iOS or Android’?

Uh oh! Have I unwittingly been contributing to this sustainability problem just as much as you? It certainly doesn’t feel like I’ve caused this! I wouldn’t even know how to start counting the people I’ve coerced to update their devices!

This is a systemic problem

I hope my particular reasons for feeling forced to buy a new phone didn’t bore you too much. Because the real issue is that I think I’m not alone. I bet millions of other consumers think similarly. How many mines would have been opened to produce material to replace functioning devices?

This is a systemic problem. Nobody is to blame directly and those gaining from the situation have little incentive to change it:

  • Device makers like Apple benefit from people buying new devices, but are only indirectly contributing to the problem.
  • Developers have little to gain and a lot (of time) to lose from supporting old devices.
  • Especially when creating new apps, designers and product managers will find it (sidenote: And, looking at the past, it should be safe to assume that those people will soon get a new device anyway. ) for adding support for what can be a handful of people.
  • The ecological wastefulness of this situation doesn’t affect consumers.

What can we do to break this forced device upgrade cycle? Should we expect app store owners to take more responsibility? Do we need legislation? How can we make sure that in 2027 I’m not again writing that I need to buy a new (sidenote: I’m not going to bet on that being a phone ) although I still like my old one?