The charge that iOS updates deliberately slow down older iPhones gets regurgitated every so often. That's not a huge surprise. It's sensational so it gets sensationalized. Recently some research into correlation vs. causation in big data analytics and how it shouldn't be misinterpreted was — wait for it — widely misinterpreted. Whether regurgitators failed to read all the way through the research, or simply decided to ignore it in service of sensationalism doesn't really matter. The results are the same. The misinformation is the same. So, what's really going on with iOS updates and older devices?
The research in question, referenced by the New York Times concerned the frequency of "iphone slow" in search queries and how it spiked around the time new iPhone hardware was released. By contrast, searches for "samsung galaxy slow" didn't spike.
Why aren't there the same search spikes?
Why "iphone slow" spikes and "samsung galaxy slow" doesn't is easy to explain. Apple owns and controls both the hardware and software on iPhones. iOS updates typically arrive a couple days before new iPhones launch. Apple provides those updates directly, all on the same day, all around the world. That's hundreds of millions of devices all getting the latest version of iOS, all at the same time.
Samsung, like other Android manufacturers, owns the hardware but not the software. They can only provide updates indirectly and in a scattershot manner. They need to wait for Google to release the code, they need to decide if they're going to support it and on which devices for which carriers, they need to make their customizations, and they need the carriers to agree — carriers that typically prefer to sell new phones rather than update old ones.
Since Apple is updating almost everyone at the same time, searches will all be performed around the same time. Since Samsung and other Android manufacturers are updating only a few at a time and at different times, searches will be dispersed across a very, very wide range of times.
Someone with an iPhone 4s on Rogers in Canada is on exactly the same schedule as someone on an iPhone 5c on Orange in France is on the same schedule as someone with an iPhone 5s on Verizon in the U.S.
Someone with a Galaxy S3 on T-Mobile in Germany is almost certainly on a very different schedule than someone with a Galaxy S4 on AT&T in the U.S., never mind someone with an HTC One Mini on Vodafone in the U.K.
Why do people search for 'iPhone slow'?
There's a phenomena that occurs when you buy a new color car. Suddenly you start seeing that same color much more often than ever before. It isn't that everyone else went out and bought that same color as well. It's that you've become more sensitive to that color — you notice it more. And perception, as the old saying goes, seems like reality.
Likewise when you update to a new version of iOS, you know you're changing things and you become more sensitive to change. You're looking for what's new and what's different so any little tick, pause, or skip stands out.
And there's likely to be some, because iOS updates change things. All sorts of background tasks run during and immediately after an update. Date is restored. Apps and media are re-downloaded. Indexes are rebuilt. Libraries are migrated. That can consume resources for a short period of time, and compound the perception.
New versions of iOS also add new features, like background refresh in iOS 7. These can consume more resources when, for example, they're downloading new content or updating messages. Since that never happened before but starts happening after the update, again it can compound the perception. (New features can often be turned off in preferences if you don't want to make use of them.)
Third party apps sometimes don't update as expeditiously as we'd like, and some aren't great citizens to begin with. If and when they slow down or otherwise misbehave, it's easy to blame the operating system.
Sometimes there are issues with new versions of iOS running on older hardware but rather than trying to get people to upgrade, Apple goes into high gear and pushes out updates that improve performance and make owners of those older devices happier.
What if Apple didn't update older devices?
If Apple didn't update older devices, instead of being blamed for overloading them to force updates, they'd get blamed for withholding features to force updates. That was exactly the charge back in 2009 when Apple didn't provide video editing for the iPhone 3G and 2011 when Apple didn't provide Siri for the iPhone 4.
(Apple didn't believe those features would work well enough on older hardware — 15fps vs. 30fps video, for example — and would rather not provide them than compromise performance.)
It's a no win situation when it comes to conspiracy theories, but luckily its a complete win-win when it comes to customers.
Why is updating older devices important?
The two most important aspects of software updates for older devices are security patches and compatibility with new apps. When older devices get the latest version of iOS, they get all the updates for the Safari browser and related web-based viewers, and they get the ability to run all the new apps that will be updating in the App Store.
iOS is a security-first operating system. Apple has gone great lengths to keep iPhone customers safe from common forms of attacks. New ones will always be discovered, of course, so getting those updates in a timely fashion on as many devices as possible is incredibly important in maintaining that security.
Likewise, because Apple updates are so well distributed, 90%+ of iOS customers are typically on the latest version. Developers who want to use new features can adopt them quickly. Apple updating older devices means you can play that next hot game or use that next big social network, even if they're using the latest technology.
Phones and tablets that never get updated avoid the perception of slow down, but they also avoid getting new features, security updates, and the ability to run apps that require those updates.
Providing updates for older devices is a lot of work for Apple. Despite the size of their bank account they still face resource constraints. Nobody can do everything all the time, not even Apple. It costs time and money, it takes engineers and quality assurance, it demands support before, during, and after to update each and every version of every older device.
Yet Apple chooses to provide those because they believe it increases the value of those older devices. They believe an iPhone or iPad that gets updated for 3 or 4 years is more valuable than one that gets updated for only 1 or 2 years, or than one that never gets updated.
If Apple or any manufacturer deliberately slowed down older devices they wouldn't incentivize people to buy new devices. They'd incentivize people to buy different devices.
The bottom line
If you're conspiratorially inclined, everything will look like a conspiracy. If not, you'll find as much information as you can, test things out for yourself, and come to a reasoned, rationale conclusion. No process is ever perfect and sometimes individual older devices, after they're updated, will be slower. Sometimes changing the Settings, updating or changing apps, or doing a clean re-install will fix it. Sometimes Apple will fix it. All of that is perfectly normal in the modern software era, mobile, laptop, and desktop, iOS and every other OS.
Everything else is tinfoil hat territory, and of all the hats to wear, the tinfoil ones are the least attractive and the least comfortable. So, the next time you see an irresponsible article or find someone misinformed by one, give them this link. That way they avoid being sensationalized and get on with enjoying their iPhones.