WAY BACK – back in time – back in the mid 1970s I found myself in my very first job as a software engineer with the computer manufacturer International Computers Limited (ICL). ICL by that time was the only credible British competitor left in the international computer industry after a series of mergers which had crunched together the various pioneer British computer companies: Ferranti, Leo, English Electric, Elliot, ICT etc., that had pioneered the development of computation in the UK.
I was based at Dalkeith Palace, an historic 300 year old mansion at the end of Dalkeith High Street. My starting salary was £1430 per annum.
I and my colleagues were engaged on the development of the operating system software for the System4 range of computers which were ICL’s competitor to IBM’s phenomenally successful 360 range. Our machines were of a similar design, and were able to run software which had been designed for the IBM 360.
One of our main markets for these computers was Eastern Europe and Russia, where American companies were not allowed to trade, and our UK-built, but US-compatible computers turned out to be attractive.
I discovered a surprising fact about our computers. The versions sold behind the Iron Curtain performed more slowly than those sold everywhere else. The actual computers were identical but those supplied to the communist block had been ‘slugged’ to run more slowly. Since we made both the hardware and the software we could easily do this and it allowed us to sell versions of our computers which passed the sanctions that otherwise limited the latest technology sales to communist countries.
I was reminded of all this recently when I learned of research undertaken by Laura Trucco, a PhD student in Economics at Harvard University. Friends had complained that their Apple iPhones had seemed to suddenly go slow, and that this performance drop coincided with when Apple launched a new model.
Were, as some suspected, Apple deliberately slowing down existing models to encourage their users to upgrade to the latest phone? Ms Trucco had an idea; when people become frustrated with a slow phone they might search Google to figure out what to do about it.
Google allows anyone to examine global search patterns using a feature called ‘Google Trends’, and this information can be retrieved week by week. Trucco looked up the search term ‘iPhone slow’ and found a surprising result – there were regular blips in such searches where users suddenly decided to do a Google search for ‘iPhone slow’ and every single one of these blips exactly coincided with the release of a new version of the iPhone.
Was this conclusive? One of her checks was to do a similar exercise for the term ‘Samsung Galaxy slow’ and it turned out that there was no such correlation to the release of new models of the Samsung Galaxy. Of course, unlike Apple, Samsung does not control the software on its devices which is the Android system supplied to almost all other smartphone manufacturers.
So is Apple doing this deliberately? The jury is still out, as Apple also traditionally launches new versions of its software when it launches its phones; introducing new features and facilities which might run more slowly on older hardware, giving users the experience that their old phone is now underpowered.
Nevertheless, many suspect that Apple might well be deliberately ‘slugging’ their phones, just like we used to do to the Russians.