Throttlegate Revisited

April 11th, 2018

Consider the crazy situation. Apple screwed up, by failing to flesh out release notes to reveal a key fact about a fix for iPhone sudden shutdowns. The solution was to regulate, or slow down performance of the affected devices if they had deteriorating batteries. It wasn’t a casual matter, of course, not was the cause casual. It was caused by batteries that were unable to handle high load.

On the surface, it was logical enough. Would users prefer unexpected shutdowns or slower performance? But the performance slowdown was noticeable enough for some people to test the result, and post those results on YouTube. More to the point, was it a deliberate effort on the part of Apple to make older iPhones obsolete in order to trick you into buying a new one, as some claimed?

I hardly think so.

Indeed, Apple finally gave its explanation as to what happened and why, and it had nothing to do with tricking you into buying new iPhones. Only thing is that the release notes didn’t explain the reasoning behind regulating or throttling performance in exchange for reliability. Had Apple added a relevant sentence or two, there’d be no problem. Or if there was, it wouldn’t be so severe. There’d be no harm in explaining, too, that a new battery would fix the problem. The iPhone wasn’t obsolete or defective.

Indeed, after the cat was out of the bag, Apple decided to add a battery health indicator in iOS 11.3, also affixed with a switch to turn off throttling. That way you could deal with this problem on your turns, only it switches back on if your iPhone shuts down. But at least you can turn it off again, or maybe just look for the real solution. Since Apple reduced the price of a new battery from $79 to $29 for this year, this all ought to be fully resolved.

But it’s not always that simple. Apple’s lapse was enough to give teams of lawyers the excuse to file class-action lawsuits and some politicians around the world to opt for headlines by investigating the company.

Last I heard, there were lawsuits which are evidently being consolidated for simplicity, and to keep judges from jumping off the cliff I suppose.

Just the other day, there was a report that the consumer protection bureau in Israel was investigating Apple for not telling customers what it did and why. If the agency rules against Apple, there could be a huge fine in a civil trial. But that doesn’t mean Apple is in danger of facing such a penalty in that and other countries looking into the matter.

The concern, overall, is that people might have purchased new iPhones under the erroneous belief the old one was broken or worn out. Past the political postering, however, just how many people really replaced their old iPhones?

And if they did, what sort of solution would you expect? Would Apple have to agree to take back the new phones? How would anyone actually prove they acted because Apple failed to publish detailed release notes? More than likely, a government might exact a civil fine if Apple is found guilty, or an offer to give customers of affected devices free battery replacements.

Indeed, I tend to wonder just how many people participating in those lawsuits hope for free iPhones once the case is settled? At best, they’d get a discount coupon if not the free battery. There’s no possible way they could demonstrate they bought new iPhones because of the throttling.

Lawyers? Lots of money if the case is settled, which is their preferred outcome.

Governments? Prestige for bringing down the big bad Apple, or would an apology and a token fine be sufficient to clear the record?

At the very least, Apple has learned a lesson here. Customers deserve more descriptive information about OS updates, especially if they will have a major impact on the performance of their devices.

I don’t know what Apple really expected here. Did they believe a significant performance reduction wouldn’t be obvious to at least some iPhone users, or was this a serious oversight on the part of engineers or those preparing company documentation who were under the erroneous belief that it would just confuse people.

In that sense, I think Apple deserves having to spend millions of dollars as an object lesson. While it may have done something with the best of intentions — and that’s my belief about this matter — Apple has an unfortunate habit of offering excessively sparse details for bug fixes. This update should have, at the very least, been accompanied by a press release. A problem that caused iPhones to shut down without warning was sufficient to provide full details about the solution. At the very least, millions of people might replace batteries.

Indeed, when asked if fewer people might buy new iPhones now that they know the battery can be replaced real cheap, Tim Cook said he didn’t care. I hope he was telling the truth there.

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