Apple: Five years, that’s what you’ve got


Apple has an excellent reputation for keeping its devices updated, but has never committed to a fixed term for updates. That’s now changed — but at just five years its commitment seems a little disappointing. 

A UK rule, the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure (PSTI) regulation, recently went into effect. Under that law, smartphone manufacturers must commit to a defined support period pertaining to the security of their devices. 

It also requires manufacturers of connected devices sold in the UK to stop selling devices encumbered by insecure passwords, provide information on how to report security issues, and commit to a minimum period during which security updates will be made available. 

To comply with the law, manufacturers are expected to provide compliance statements; Apple provides its pledge via the company’s regulatory website, where it offers documents pertaining to Apple’s iPad, iPhone, Watch, TV and Home products.  In all the filings I checked, the company says it will support these devices for a “minimum five years from the first supply data.”

Five years, that’s what we’ve got

What I hope Apple is doing with its five-year promise is under-promising so it can deliver better. Company critics have already noted that the support commitment is on first sight lower than the promise made by Android smartphone manufacturers, Samsung and Google, both of which seem to promise five years. Except, that’s not quite true — Google’s compliance statement offers numerous schedules, from two years to seven, depending on which product you choose. Given the breadth of Samsung’s smartphone catalog, it’s possible the company offers different support periods for some of its products.

What makes the idea that the five-year term Apple promises should be seen as a minimum it will guarantee — and not the maximum it will deliver — is that iOS 17 (the current iteration of Apple’s smartphone software) supports devices up to six years old, including the iPhone XS. That’s a trend Apple set in motion a few years ago when it decided to make its operating system compatible with as many device iterations as it could. 

Under pressure

It is also true that customers want to use their devices for longer. Recent CIRP data showed that around a third of all iPhones in use are three or more years old, though 61% are over two years old. Consumers today will invest extra cash on the highest-end devices that they then try to keep using as long as they can; that’s the secret sauce spicing Apple’s iPhone Pro sales.

But the decision to give Android makers easy bragging rights by offering a shorter support commitment could be a problem for the Apple. Perhaps there’s a reason Apple needs to moderate expectations.

After all, current speculation claims some of the most interesting AI-driven features of iOS 18 will only be supported on the most recent iPhones. That’s not to say every new improvement in iOS 18 will be limited in that way, but it wouldn’t be the first time that some such features are only supported on a limited number of devices.

Golden years

We might learn whether that’s true next week, when Apple discusses iOS 18 with developers at WWDC 2024. However, if tomorrow’s AI smartphones do indeed need the most recent processors, it’s logical to expect some manufacturers might eventually begin to scale back the support promise they make under the UK law.

The regulation also means that if preventable security problems emerge in connected devices from any manufacturer, in the UK at least, there will be some potential to hold the makers responsible. If they can’t guarantee security for the full extent they promise, the onus will be on them.

One group of people I do think will benefit from the five-year Apple promise will be enterprise purchasers; they now have a solemn commitment on which to estimate their future IT spending budgets.

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