This December, Apple was forced to reveal something that some iPhone enthusiasts and detractors have long suspected. Older iPhones, one of the most popular smartphone brands in the world, are being slowed down by software updates. The conspiracy theory of planned obsolescence for older hardware appears real at first glance. Real enough that more than one Apple lawsuit is in the headlines. Users who are particularly angered have accused the corporate giant of deliberately slowing down older phones to force customers to upgrade to the latest model.
However, the reality is more complex than it outwardly appears. The lie is one of omission rather than one born from purely malicious intent. However, it could be a costly deception even if consumer interests were in mind.
Apple lawsuit result of battery life concerns
The core of the issue is a very technical one, born from natural limitations in current lithium ion batteries. The reality of any Li-ion battery is that they will degrade over time. The new smart phone you buy could experience these issues within a year, to as far out as three years. These problems include reduced battery life per charge, slower charge times, and inaccurate battery life indicators.
For the iPhone 6 models, the problem that Apple saw was the propensity of the phones with aging batteries to shut down at random. Part of the problem comes from the demand the phone hardware places on the battery. As the batteries age, they become less capable of supplying power to the hardware at ‘peak demand’. This could cause the phone to turn off, seemingly at random.
Apple added a feature to the iPhone 6, 6s, SE and 7 models of the phone through a software update. The software would monitor battery health aggressively, and if certain factors were detected, it would throttle the phone back. This would prevent the phone from asking too much from the battery, and in turn would prevent random shut downs.
On paper, it’s a legitimate explanation. On a technical level, it absolutely achieves the goals of preserving the battery and the phones themselves. Judging by the intensely negative response on the Internet, this desire to ‘protect’ iPhone users was not well communicated.
An unsatisfactory explanation
The PR spin hasn’t been enough to stop an Apple lawsuit from appearing to be a good option. Indeed, much of Apple’s own marketing revolves around several key features of their phones. As the phones upgrade between revisions, Apple has been quick to advertise improved power, greater speed, and longer lasting battery life. Whenever the iOS software receives an update, it is generally perceived to be a fix of some sort, an improvement. Few people download updates expecting their devices to be slowed down for any reason.
Part of the reason for the response is how the issue came to light. On Reddit’s /r/iPhone, a user posted their own experience, one that corroborated with research by tech specialists on Geekbench. As the issue picked up steam, Apple likely felt compelled to reveal the nature of last year’s iOS update. This update included the new power-management software that would slow the affected iPhones down if their batteries were degraded.
Between ‘citizen investigative journalism’, and Apple’s own secrecy about the matter, the negative reaction is unsurprising. And there are other issues with the phones themselves that drives the anger. Official battery replacement that does not void any warranty costs $79. Apple has made the devices difficult for users to open and replace batteries themselves, so many opt to go with official service at an Apple store. Others choose to void the warranty by letting a third-party tech shop handle the replacement.
Filers of one Apple lawsuit claim the secrecy was intentional
Apple’s secrecy may have had unintended consequences that were financially beneficial to the company. An end user may have decided their current iPhone needed complete replacement. They may have replaced their batteries too early, due to the proactive nature of the battery-management software.
The possibility has spurred a lawsuit in California. The two men responsible for the legal broadside believe Apple knew full well that consumers would feel compelled to upgrade to a newer phone once performance started to lag. They further state that no customer ever requested this fix for the iPhone’s battery issues. The secretive implementation could very well have made customers spend far more money than necessary.
Internet commentary is lightning-fast when it comes to the technical industry. It is easy to find exaggerated anger, and it is just as easy to find consumers who are truly disillusioned with a company and its product. At the end of the day, even if the courts should side with the tech giant, the loss of trust could sting the company far worse in the long run. With companies like Samsung and Google actively making serious plays for the smartphone market, Apple stands to lose the trust from its most loyal customers.