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19th European Roundtable on Sustainable Consumption and Production – Circular Europe for Sustainability: Design, Production and Consumption

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Planned Obsolescence in Smartphones; Insights from Benchmark Testing

In recent years, growing interest in circular economy models, collaborative consumption and the right to repair have highlighted the key role that product lifespans play in shaping the environmental impacts of consumption. Indeed, several Industrial Ecologists have shown that product durability and turnover have meaningful implications for energy and resource efficiency, critical raw materials, waste generation, and climate change. While much of the public discourse, regulation, and academic research has centered on functional aspects of product obsolescence, psychological factors and specifically perceived obsolescence have not received the same attention In this research, we investigate how consumer perceptions of product performance – and subsequently replacement choices – are affected by perceived (i.e. psychological) vs. actual, functional obsolescence. To this end, we rely on a comprehensive dataset on benchmarking tests obtained from a leading benchmarking company. A benchmark is the act of running a computer program, a set of programs, or other operations, in order to assess the relative objective performance of an electronic device. Analyzing scores for over 250,000 iPhone benchmarking test conducted over a 2-year period, we investigate the extent to which average functional performance changes over time and as a function of operating system (iOS) upgrades, and use it as an indicator for objective functional performance. Our results indicate that in contrast to common perception, iOS updates generally lead to marginal improvements in iPhones’ performance. While, we do find evidence that this improvement is not uniform, the issue of performance throttling seems to be limited to a small number of device (likely those that have passed a battery wear level threshold). In addition, we measure and explore trends in testing frequency (i.e. number of test performed by users) over time. Confirming that testing frequency trends closely mirror online searches for phrases such as ‘why is my iPhone slow’ we then use testing frequency as a measure for perceived (i.e. psychological) obsolescence and investigate its relationship to objective performance as well as external events (e.g. announcement of new product launches). While we find no clear relationship between low objective functional performance (i.e. low test scores) and the number of test preformed, our data reveals significant spikes in the number of the numbers of benchmarking tests run by consumers closely following external events such as new product announcements and media coverage of iPhone performance. These results suggest that consumers are more likely to question the performance of their devices due to perceived obsolescence rather than actual deterioration in functional performance. These results are consistent with other findings illustrating the importance of psychological drivers for product replacement. hence, despite wide advocacy for the ‘right to repair’, and frustration with what many view as ‘planned obsolescence’, out work indicated that at least for now, focus on the psychological (rather than technical) drivers for product replacement might yield greater benefits.

Tamar Makov
Yale University
United States

Colin Fitzpatrick
University Of Limerick


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