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A Reality Check About Throttlegate

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.