On Wednesday, Apple confirmed what many customers have long suspected: The company has been slowing the performance of older iPhones. Apple says it started the practice a year ago, to compensate for battery degradation, rather than push people to upgrade their smartphones faster. But even giving that benefit of the doubt, there are plenty of better ways Apple could have accomplished the same goal without betraying customer trust.
Earlier this week, John Poole, a developer at Geekbench, published a blog post indicating that a change in iOS is slowing down performance on older devices. According to Apple, factors like low charge, cold climates, and natural battery degradation can all affect the performance of its mobile devices, and the company confirmed that this policy was implemented last year to counteract these effects.
As much sense as that explanation may make, Apple could have made plenty of choices that would have benefited consumers instead of penalizing them. These same choices could have also saved the company from the public shaming it suffered this week.
In a statement to WIRED, Apple confirmed Poole’s findings, saying it was purposely slowing down older iPhones to compensate for the effects of age on their batteries. “Lithium-ion batteries become less capable of supplying peak current demands when in cold conditions, have a low battery charge or as they age over time, which can result in the device unexpectedly shutting down to protect its electronic components,” the company says.
While many have speculated that the company has been doing this for years, Apple says the feature was implemented last year for the iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, and iPhone SE. Now, with iOS 11.2, the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus are getting the same treatment, and the company intends to bring other devices into the fold down the road.
Rather than secretly hamstring the iPhone’s CPU, though, Apple could have simply educated users about the limitations of lithium-ion batteries, says Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, a company that sells repair kits and posts repair guides for consumer electronics. While Apple does say in the iPhone user manual that batteries degrade over time and should be replaced, you’d have to dig through a few links outside of the manual to learn that by 500 charge cycles, your phone’s battery will hold a charge of about 80 percent.
Another tactic Apple could employ is selling battery replacement kits to consumers, letting them pop a fresh battery into their aging iPhone. It would be an easily understandable solution to an easily understandable problem, rather than software manipulation that feeds into a long-running, planned obsolescence conspiracy theory. But Apple has actively fought against laws that would require it to provide a way for users to repair their devices. According to a report from HuffPost, Apple argues that allowing consumers to replace the battery could make the iPhone more vulnerable to hacks, and that letting people peek inside would make the iPhone easier to counterfeit.
“Apple won’t sell batteries to consumers, people should be furious about that,” Wiens says. “Your battery is a maintenance item, and everyone should expect to replace their battery fairly frequently.”
Apple does cover one battery replacement under its one-year warranty program, but only for “defective batteries,” a term that isn’t clearly defined on the company’s site. If your phone is out of warranty and you don’t have an AppleCare+ plan, the company offers a battery replacement for $79 plus a $6.95 shipping charge. The problem, Wiens says, is that Apple doesn’t advertise this policy to consumers, leaving iPhone users to believe that the only solution is to buy a costly iPhone.
Direct battery fixes certainly would have made the most sense. But even allowing that a software tweak was the only way Apple could have proceeded—untrue, but just for argument’s sake—it had a much better option than making its software solution covert.
Rather than quietly push out an update that crimped older iPhones, it should have made that throttling opt-in. As it stands, there’s no way to avoid having your phone slowed down once the battery reaches its limits. By giving users the choice, and giving them the information necessary to make their own decision, Apple could avoid the frustrations many have expressed over the policy.
While making the throttling opt-in could cause performance issues for users who opt-out, it would give users a sense of control over the situation and avoid making them feel like they’re being tricked into buying a new phone. As it stands, Apple’s move comes off as deceptive.
Instead of leaving users confused about why their phones are suddenly slowing to a crawl, Apple could take user education a step further by providing a battery health monitor in the Settings app. That way, an iPhone owner could figure out if the battery is the issue, or if something else is going on.
Lay Down the Law
The damage, unfortunately, is already done. But it’s also unlikely that Apple will behave differently going forward. At the very least, the company almost certainly won’t shift gears and start selling battery replacement kits to consumers. For starters, the iPhone’s casing uses proprietary Pentalobe screws, which make it hard for average users to get inside to swap the battery.
Apple has also lobbied against right-to-repair legislation, which would allow third-party repair shops and typical consumers to more easily fix their broken phones. Proposed right-to-repair laws typically require companies to publish their repair manuals, as well as make the necessary repair tools available for purchase rather than requiring a specialist to make these repairs.
Wiens says that, ideally, right-to-repair legislation would pass and ensure consumers have the ability to fix their devices on their own terms without having to deal with warranties or acquire difficult-to-find tools.
Apple’s throttling is misleading, and it’s far from the best way the company could have handled the situation. Still, lithium-ion batteries are riddled with problems users should be aware of. The company isn’t likely to change its stance on the matter, but if you’ve noticed your iPhone getting slower over the last year, at least you know it wasn’t all in your head—and that a battery fix might bring your iPhone back up to speed.