A Reality Check About Throttlegate

January 3rd, 2018

Apple found itself in the thick of it when it quietly released an update, iOS 10.2.1, designed to fix a sudden shutdown problem on some iPhones. This was separate from a warranty repair program in which such an issue was caused by a battery defect on the iPhone 6s in which the battery was replaced free of charge.

But the two are often conflated.

The problem is that Apple didn’t explain the nature of the fix, extended in an iOS 11 update to include the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, and that’s where the trouble began. In order to put a stop to the shutdowns, Apple opted to reduce performance under heavy load to keep the unit running. Some users probably never noticed, but apps would take longer to launch and the ones that made demands on the CPU and graphics wouldn’t run as fast. Benchmarks, designed to test the limits of the hardware, would reveal sharply reduced results.

When the reduced performance wa discovered, the usual Apple conspiracy theories were operative. Apple was throttling performance to convince you to buy a new iPhone. It was an evil plot to sell more product, all about planned obsolescence.

Apple admitted what it was doing, and explained why. But it was a case of too little and too late, and failed to prevent class-action lawsuits. It almost seemed as if the explanation wasn’t noticed.

Since then Apple has done more to explain the problem. Admitting it should have made an effort to fully explain what was going on, Apple instituted a low-cost battery replacement plan. Instead of paying $79 for the official authorized replacement, the price is now $29 until the end of this year. That’s a good $30 less than some independent retailers charge for iPhone battery replacements, and iFixit went along with the program, reducing the price of their own battery kits.

An iOS update will allow you to check on the battery’s health, a feature long offered for Mac notebooks.

There’s also detailed information at Apple’s site about battery technology and the limitations of lithium-ion batteries. I’ve read all of it, and it seems perfectly sensible so far as I can see. Apple does not appear to be faking it to fool you. The reasoning behind throttling performance on some iPhones with deteriorated batteries makes perfect sense. It’s all about the fact that Apple failed to properly communicate this information to its customers, a common problem. The release notes provided with software updates are almost always too brief and lack important details. Some software fixes are never even listed, leaving clever power users to figure out what was changed and the impact.

Is there going to be a lasting impact?

I suspect not. Apple’s stock price remains within a narrow range, so it’s not as if there’s been a sudden loss of confidence in the company. How a corporation manages a crisis is just as important, and often more so, than the crisis itself.

The remaining questions are all about those who replaced their iPhone batteries at full price, or replaced their iPhones. In the first case, customers deserve to receive a $50 refund to cover the price difference. In the second case, if the customer can demonstrate somehow that they replaced a covered iPhone only because it was misbehaving, they should be given more time to return the new device for a full refund.

It’s unfortunate, though, that Apple learned nothing from the Antennagate scandal in 2010. When some users complained, then, that reception quality went down the tubes when the unit was held in a certain way, Steve Jobs suggested sarcastically they just hold it differently.

When that response landed like a lead balloon, he called a media event where he explained what was going on, and why other smartphones would exhibit the same problems. It was about the laws of physics, so in addition to offering free bumper cases for a while — which eliminated the problem — videos were posted for a time that demonstrated how other phones reacted if held in certain ways.

But if Jobs held his tongue and responded to a concerned customer with respect, the bad publicity would have been overcome pretty quickly. I don’t know if it hurt sales, but Consumer Reports jumped into the fray and declined to recommend the iPhone 4 without a bumper case. They didn’t bother to see how other phones reacted when the antennas were similarly covered by one’s fingers.

Seven years later, Apple responded quickly enough, but had there been detailed notes about the changes and why they were made — with proper references to an Apple support document with further information, there wouldn’t have been so much negative publicity.

I won’t suggest that the folks who write Apple’s support documents should be fired. But the company needs to be more forthcoming with customers. You’d think they would have also learned that with the years of silence between the release of the Mac Pro in 2013 and the revelation that Apple knew it was a misfire and was working on a modular replacement that can be upgraded by users.

So there are still lessons to be learned. Corporate secrecy has its place in a highly competitive environment. It doesn’t work when customers just need to know what’s going on with the expensive products they bought.

And one more thing: Apple is not the only company to make gear that suffers from sudden shutdowns when batteries are drained or deteriorated. Consider recent reports about the Samsung Galaxy Note 8, which reportedly may fail to recharge if the battery is drained too low.

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9 Responses to “A Reality Check About Throttlegate”

  1. Bern says:

    Yes to almost everything here. Nice sensible tone.

    Isn’t the replacement offer ongoing this year and not to have ended on the 12/31/17 as you seem to be stating?

    A larger frame to consider is that all companies have an environment or culture that comes with the founding of the organization and changes with the goals and intentions of the current leadership. And even the previous and current leadership are molded by the larger culture they inhabits. This extends all the way out to what it currently means to be a human being in today’s world and the opportunity really is to take a lead in defining or redefining what is means to be human.

    I know you likely didn’t write your piece with a conscious intent to comment on the existential state of human beings and a context can also be helpful in putting things into perspective.

  2. Weide Marvin says:

    Made my appointment with the Genius Bar to have the $29 battery replaced in my wife’s iPhone 7. I was seated at a large table and told to wait for my name to be called. Thirty minutes later a Apple employee sat down next to me and informed me that the Scottsdale Store doesn’t have any batterys. After a long conversation I insisted I wanted a replacement battery! The Apple employee said he would order a battery and notify me when it comes in and make an appointment for the 2 hour battery replacement.

    Bah Humbug.

    • I suppose that’s why they originally wanted to set this up for late January, to give enough time to build inventory.

      Or call another store, such as the one at Biltmore (Phoenix AZ).


  3. Constable Odo says:

    There are an awful lot of people out there who want to see Apple’s business fail and they’re happy to make sure the news media continues to claim how Apple is deliberately forcing users to upgrade to new iPhones. There isn’t any proof of that but who needs proof, right? Rival smartphone companies and Wall Street stand to benefit from trying to show Apple is an evil corporation. Why buy products from an evil company who’s only interest is to take consumers’ dollars?

    I have to admit that Apple should have warned iPhone users about slowdowns after whatever update caused the problem. Almost anyone can come to the conclusion that Apple was hiding that tidbit of information. A simple statement telling users to replace their batteries would have solved everything from the very beginning.

  4. Kaleberg says:

    Taking a jaundiced view:

    Apple should have provided an annoying notification that most people would have simply dismissed and ignored when the battery started running down. The usual cause for smart phone slowdown is seeing one’s friend’s more recent model which almost always operates more quickly. It took a sharp eye and a benchmark to demonstrate that this slowdown was even happening. It’s like the complaint about the naked guy in the room across the street: “Yes, you can see him! Just stand on a chair.”

    Now we’ll hear the complaints about how a $29 iPhone battery replacement is putting small repair shops out of business and making it harder to find someone who can replace your screen or battery when one isn’t near an Apple Store. It’s high time we broke up the Apple monopoly and sold the i and the Phone separately.

    I really shouldn’t be so cynical, but it makes for good clickbait.

    • Constable Odo says:

      Now the news media is saying how the Throttlegate Incident will seriously hurt Apple’s iPhone sales with estimates as high as 10M to 16M iPhone sales lost. Anything that happens to Apple happens in a huge way. I don’t think Galaxy S7 sales were hurt to that degree by exploding batteries. It’s been suddenly determined that all the millions of consumers who had originally decided to update their slowed iPhones will now choose to only replace their batteries. I’m not sure how this number was determined but that’s the buzz being thrown around. I’m really getting sick of the people creating these stories without offering a shred of evidence.

      Apple is certainly the king of clickbait.

  5. DWalla says:

    Throttlegate?….. crikey, the moment I read the headline of a story with a “SomethingGate” reference…. I close the window.

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