David Mytton

Obsolescence forced by software

Published in Product Engineering.

Obsolescence forced by software

“I can’t check-out – it just says there is an error”, I was told by one of my older relatives. “I put everything into my shopping cart but I have to phone them to make the order”, she continued. “They keep telling me to clear my cookies. What are cookies?”

5 years ago I purchased an iPad Air for my grandmother so she could order her grocery shopping online. Her health meant she could no longer drive to the shops so an iPad was the perfect solution. With a simple interface, a big screen and no chance of viruses or malware, installing the Morrisons app to order groceries online meant she could maintain her independence.

This worked perfectly until a few months ago. For some reason, the app was preventing her from completing her order. A cryptic message just said “An error has occurred, try again in a few moments”. Calling customer services allowed her to complete the order over the phone – all the items were in the cart – but she couldn’t do this on the iPad itself. They suggested she clear her cookies which made me suspicious – there are no cookies in a native app.

The next time I visited, I started to investigate. I replicated the problem but the generic error didn’t explain what the issue was. There were no updates for the Morrisons app so I decided to delete and reinstall it. After removing the app, I went to the App Store to find that the old app no longer existed. A new one was in its place, but it required iOS 11 or later. The iPad Air was on iOS 9.

The settings told me that an update was available – iOS 12 – but it could not install it over the air. No explanation why, just that I needed to plug the iPad into a Mac and use iTunes to update it. I didn’t have my laptop and the iPad was my grandmother’s only computer. She didn’t need a Mac, or a Windows PC. So we were stuck until I could visit again with a full computer.

Morrisons does have a website, although it is significantly less intuitive than the iPad app. My grandmother could use this in the meantime, but needed help from other relatives – the website text was too small to read and touch areas difficult to hit, even for me! Increasing the system font size had no effect – it clearly hard coded fixed font sizes.

Several weeks later, I was able to plug the iPad into my Macbook and upgrade it to iOS 12. I downloaded the new Morrisons app and my grandmother was able to place her orders again. However, this episode made me think about the inevitability of future problems, and how the tech industry treats upgrades.

Obsolescence forced by software

The iPad Air was released in 2013 and discontinued in 2016. Apple is unusual in how long it supports its products, but even it has a limit. iOS 12 is the final version of iOS to support the iPad Air. iPadOS 13 – released in September 2019 – no longer supports it. iOS 12.4.4 was released on Dec 10 2019 specifically for devices that are not supported by iPadOS 13.

When it was released, the iPad Air was running iOS 7, an OS from 2013. Morrisons now requires iOS 11, released in 2017. The old app had worked from at least 2013 all the way to 2019 – 6 years. That’s a long time in technology.

Yet, the iPad Air is still working perfectly. Unless it is physically broken, there’s no reason to think it won’t continue working for many years to come. There are no moving parts and it is not in a hostile environment. My bet is that it will be discontinuing software support that will force an upgrade, not any kind of hardware problem.

Perfectly functional hardware, forced into obsolescence by software.

How long do you maintain backward compatibility?

I understand the developer perspective. I love playing with new technology, new software and new APIs. 6 years is long time to need to maintain compatibility: new and deprecated APIs, introducing new functionality, retiring old features, performance and efficiency, testing on a range of old devices.

But understanding your audience is just as important.

The next major version of the open source RSS reader application NetNewsWire will require the latest macOS 10.15 and the newly-beta iOS version requires iOS 13. The users of an RSS app are likely to be techies and the app authors want to use all the latest functionality of those platforms, writing elegant and maintainable code. This is a reasonable position.

In contrast, aside from some devout, hardcore iPad-only techies, the iPad is a very mainstream consumer device. Ordering groceries from Morrisons is an equally mainstream activity. Analysis suggests that iPhones and iPads stick around for 4+ years – 2 out of 3 iOS devices ever sold are still in use.

If you are building apps for techies then forcing users onto the latest (or latest minus 1) platform might be a reasonable decision. If you are building apps for mainstream users then you have to make a different calculation.

Retiring apps makes sense – I understand why Morrisons would want all new users to migrate to their new app. But do they not have statistics showing customers still using their older app? Everything continued working, except checkout. Was there no way to maintain backward compatibility? Windows APIs have significant backward compatibility, with some effort, all the way back to Windows 3.1.

I expect Morrisons changed their checkout or payments API behind the scenes – perhaps they knew they had few users on the old app and decided they would just force it. But then I wonder why they didn’t set up a better error message. Customer service clearly had no clue because asking the user to clear cookies with a native app makes no sense. What would my grandmother have done without me investigating, or if I had no laptop? Either buy a new iPad or continue using the website.

This is not a deliberate conspiracy to force users to upgrade but it’s also not great for the idea of the circular economy.

Lessons for app developers

  • Clearly define your intended audience and understand what constraints that places on your development practices. Your approach will be different depending on where your users fall on the diffusion of innovations scale.
  • If unsure, follow the example of the major tech platforms for their own products. The iPad Air is unusual in how long it has been supported by iOS, only going end of life at the end of 2019. If Apple are continuing to support it 3 years after it was discontinued (and you have produced an app for that platform) then you should support it just as long.
  • Review your statistics. Apple provides developers with an App Store Connect dashboard of stats showing which platforms users are on so you don’t need to install privacy invading trackers. Other platforms probably do the same.
  • Version your APIs and provide backward compatibility when you introduce new versions. Determine how long you will keep APIs alive before sunsetting based on your audience profile and usage stats.
  • If you do break backward compatibility, provide useful error messages and train your customer support team to offer useful advice. Consider the Microsoft and Apple design guidelines for errors.