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Should Apple, Inc. Fear Lawsuits From Disgruntled iPhone Users?

By Anders Bylund - Dec 23, 2017 at 10:33AM

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Angry users are suing Apple for slowing down their older iPhones when the battery starts to wear down.

Apple (AAPL 2.45%) is in hot water, again. The smartphone giant said that it slows your old iPhones down when you install newer versions of the iOS operating system, quite on purpose. Users are complaining about a cold-hearted strategy aimed at forcing them to upgrade their older handsets, and lawsuits are already coming in.

Angry man screaming at his phone.

Image source: Getty Images.

What's wrong?

When Apple releases a new version of iOS, many people install it on their no-longer-cutting-edge iPhones, only to notice a significant slowdown. Normally, that storm blows over in a couple of weeks as some disappointed users convince themselves that the new features of the latest operating system are worth it, while others simply upgrade to a newer smartphone.

This time, it's different.

One intrepid Reddit user noticed that his brother's iPhone 6 was faster than his own when running the latest and greatest iOS 11. The apparent performance difference was confirmed by running benchmarks on both phones, and the only real difference between them was that the slower phone reported more wear on its Lithium-ion battery. After replacing that battery, the performance of that unit matched the brother's faster speeds again.

When this report hit Reddit, other iPhone users on that popular information-sharing site repeated the original experiment with similar results. Benchmarking specialists at Geekbench weighed in by charting reported processor speeds for thousands of iPhone 6S and 7 handsets running various versions of iOS, showing a sawtooth pattern as degraded batteries led to slower processor speeds. This pattern was not there in iOS 10.2.0, but did show up in the next version, only to intensify in iOS 11.2.

The issue went viral, with several news outlets asking Apple for an explanation. In an emailed statement to news services, including NPR and Apple Insider, Cupertino admitted that it's slowing down older phones now in an effort to conserve the battery.

"Our goal is to deliver the best experience for customers, which includes overall performance and prolonging the life of their devices," Apple said. These batteries lose the ability to meet peak current requirements over time, "which can result in the device unexpectedly shutting down to protect its electronic components."

No big deal

Class action lawsuits are already pouring in over this battery-management issue. Here's why I don't think the plaintiffs have a leg to stand on.

  • You really can't argue that Apple is reducing the performance of older devices just to drive customers to the checkout counter of their local Apple store. The slower processor speed is a trade-off in exchange for longer battery life. In addition, running everything at slower speeds should prolong the life of every component -- battery included. If this was a plain please-upgrade ploy, it would not be a particularly successful one.
  • According to the Geekbench charts, the performance adjustment comes in a series of gentle steps down. There isn't a single, brutal downgrade from 2,500 MHz to 1,100 MHz overnight, but several smaller adjustments as the battery grows older and less capable. Again, that's a sensible approach.
  • All of these battery-management details are pretty new on the scene, having started with the iOS 10.2.1 upgrade in January, 2017. Even if Apple were on the hook for an egregious abuse of customer trust, it would only apply to the last five system updates in a space of less than 11 months.
  • None of these adjustments were made in the hardware of the phones themselves, and could easily be rolled back by removing that feature from a future iOS release.

Long story short, users are complaining over a pretty reasonable system upgrade that comes with significant battery-life benefits. If you absolutely require top-speed performance, you could still hold off on buying a new iPhone and just replace the battery instead. It's a storm in a teacup.

An iPhone X splashing through a shock of clean water.

The iPhone X is still too new to be affected by battery wear. Image source: Apple.

What could Apple do better?

Of course, iPhone batteries are notoriously difficult to replace. Apple Stores will handle it for $79; third-party repair shops can do it for half the price, but they don't have access to Apple's original parts at any price. Changing the policy on original parts sales and making it simpler to replace a dying battery would go a long way toward making angry users forget about the whole slowdown issue.

Furthermore, Apple didn't explain this new feature upfront. That would have been better than just waiting for the community to discover it and start complaining.

It would also make sense to give iPhone users a choice. Sure, enable the new battery-management feature by default, but make sure that there's a checkbox somewhere in the Settings app to toggle the battery-sipping behavior on and off. If you'd rather live with shorter battery life, but higher performance while it lasts, maybe it shouldn't be Apple's place to force your hand in the opposite direction.

Apple will be just fine here. The lawsuits are going away without causing any serious damage, and maybe the next version of iOS could come with a brand new toggle. Let's hope that the company has learned from this mistake and starts being more transparent about what's included in every new software update. Personally, I also would like to see larger smartphone batteries overall, even if it makes the handset a little less ultra-slim. But that's just a dream, and not a realistic one.

And that's all, folks. No reason for Apple shareholders to panic.

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