• The Strange Case of the iPhone and Throttlegate

    December 26th, 2017

    Sometimes saying too little is a bad idea, and Apple may come to realize that with its latest so-called scandal. It all started when some people discovered that their somewhat older iPhones were running much slower, something readily confirmed with benchmark tests.

    Over the years, Apple has been accused of unjustly making older gear obsolete, particularly with OS updates that worked with limited features or not at all. The theory had it that you’d become disgusted with your gadget and order the newer model from Apple. Since customer retention scores are high, this presents a convenient if sneaky way to keep the money flowing in.

    Or at least that’s the theory.

    On a practical level, it doesn’t hold up so well. With macOS High Sierra, Macs that are seven or eight years old can still run it with decent performance; there’s no evidence of a sudden reduction in benchmarks. True those older models are no longer otherwise supported, but that’s long in the tooth for personal computers. iOS gear is supported for up to four years. So if you still have an iPhone 5s on hand, released in 2013, you can install iOS 11 on it, but not on my wife’s iPhone 5c, which is essentially an iPhone 5 in a plastic case. No, she hasn’t complained.

    But that doesn’t mean all features will be supported. Apple continues to add hardware-dependant capabilities, such as Metal 2, which doesn’t work on older gear. The new OS may challenge vintage hardware in other ways too, so it’s not uncommon for users to complain about reduced performance. The situation, though, is far better than with Android, where even owners of new gear can’t be assured they bought it with the latest OS, or that it’ll ever be eligible for an update; well, except if you choose a Google Pixel or Nexus smartphone.

    In short, I don’t believe Apple is engaged in a planned obsolescence conspiracy. They just don’t hold back on improvements.

    But what about those iPhones that were suddenly running slower? What’s going on here?

    Well, after some benchmarks were posted, Apple finally got around to explaining what was really going on, and it evidently was a direct response to problems with some iPhones suddenly shutting down even before the battery was spent.

    Says Apple:

    Our goal is to deliver the best experience for customers, which includes overall performance and prolonging the life of their devices. 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.

    Last year we released a feature for iPhone 6, iPhone 6s and iPhone SE to smooth out the instantaneous peaks only when needed to prevent the device from unexpectedly shutting down during these conditions. We’ve now extended that feature to iPhone 7 with iOS 11.2, and plan to add support for other products in the future.

    Unfortunately, this admission came too late for some people who had already relented and bought new iPhones. So should Apple just give them their money back?

    Worse, the action triggered class action lawsuits making various claims related to the performance throttling move. One filing points to a recent limited repair program, in which Apple replaced the batteries of some iPhones because of sudden shutdowns. It alleges that Apple deliberately chose to reduce performance to avoid spending the time and effort to fix the core problem. But if the battery is defective, Apple will always replace it free if the unit is under warranty. Otherwise, it’s $79, which is cheap compared to the cost of a new device.

    I suppose the complainant’s charge seems reasonable enough, but it would require proof, and that would mean that the lawyers would have to bring in hardware experts to demonstrate that an unfixed defect is involved; well, other than the defect that Apple admitted to and fixed.

    Even with Apple’s admission, though, I still think they deserve to lose these cases for one reason, and that’s corporate silence. Once the decision was made to cripple performance, Apple should have put up a warning to customers about what was happening, that the battery may be in need of replacement.

    After all, you can already dig up such information on any Mac notebook. Just hold down Option when you choose the battery life display from the menu bar, and you’ll see a message as to whether the battery is healthy. For a fairly complete report, including the number of charge cycles the battery has undergone, you can consult Power settings under System Information from the Apple menu.

    Since Apple is monitoring battery life of your iPhone behind the scenes to determine if throttling is necessary, there’s no reason why it can’t display that data in a user friendly form, no reason at all. After all, when battery capacity hits 20%, you are already offered the opportunity to place it in Low Power Mode.

    Apple’s best approach would be to introduce a battery health feature, pronto, in the next iOS revision, and move to make fast settlements to dispatch existing lawsuits.

    And, perhaps, pledge not to keep customers in the dark in the future about making critical alterations to a unit’s performance without due notice to the user.

    Oh, and by the way, there’s a Battery Health app for iOS that displays battery health. I think Apple owes it to their customers to refund the $1.99 they have to pay to buy this app, and provide this information themselves.

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    2 Responses to “The Strange Case of the iPhone and Throttlegate”

    1. sfjohn says:

      When are writers and columnists going to learn that adding “gate” onto the end of a word or phrase when they mean scandal, just makes them look stupid. The actual Watergate that the term derives from was beyond a scandal, conspiracy, corruption, actual illegal criminal acts and the eventual resignation of the president of the United States. Plus it was the name of a hotel as I recall.

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