Comment: Slowing down older iPhones may be the right thing to do, but it opens a can of worms

Apple caused a furore yesterday when it admitted that it deliberately slows down older iPhones.

The issue first came to the fore with a Reddit thread, which showed a significant difference in performance on the same device when fitted with old and new batteries. Geekbench founder, John Poole, confirmed the phenomenon, and developer Guilherme Rambo subsequently identified the code that controlled it.

Apple then confirmed the facts, and explained its reasons

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Apple said that slowing performance as batteries aged was the lesser of two evils.

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.

On the face of it, no-one can argue with that: reduced performance is certainly preferable to random shutdowns (check out our how to on checking your iPhone’s battery health and DIY replacement).

But 9to5Mac publisher Seth Weintraub asked a rather pointed question: has Apple found a workaround that gets it out of addressing warranty claims?

That’s a very difficult question to answer. All lithium-ion batteries degrade over time – that’s a matter of chemistry.

Lithium-ion reactions actually erode the materials non-uniformly, seizing upon intrinsic vulnerabilities in atomic structure in the same way that rust creeps unevenly across steel. As Li+ ions move across the nickel-oxide anode when discharging, it causes minute breaks in the material, diminishing its capacity […]

[Additionally] as lithium ions move across the cathode when charging they generate a kind of rock-salt that forms an electrically-insulating crust, also reducing its capacity.

Is Apple being helpful in addressing a known chemical problem? Or is there a specific fault with some iPhones, which Apple is effectively hiding? As my colleague Benjamin Mayo says, we don’t have the data needed to answer this question – only Apple does. Among everyone else, views are very mixed.

But even if we assume the best, that Apple is actually doing us a favor by extending the reliable life of our devices, there’s a PR problem here.

For years, there’s been a conspiracy theory that Apple deliberately slows down older devices in order to force people to buy new models. As John Gruber has said more than once, that’s a dumb theory.

If your car breaks down after just a few years, are you not more likely to replace it with a different brand? To posit that Apple customers are somehow different, that when they feel screwed by Apple their response is to go back for more, is “Cult of Mac” logic — the supposition that most Apple customers are irrational zealots or trend followers who just mindlessly buy anything with an Apple logo on it. The truth is the opposite: Apple’s business is making customers happy, and keeping them happy. They make products for discriminating people who have higher standards and less tolerance for design flaws or problems.

But the fact that Apple has been slowing down older devices plays right into the hands of this conspiracy. For years, we’ve all been reassuring iPhone owners that Apple doesn’t deliberately slow older devices, and now it turns out we were wrong: it has. Albeit for presumed good reasons.

Many are saying that if Apple was doing this for the right reasons, it should have been upfront about the fact. I tend to agree, but at the same time I can understand why it wasn’t.

My guess is that Apple has a whole bunch of code that does this kind of stuff: takes care of things in the background to deliver the best overall product experience. If it tried to communicate all of this to its customers, it would baffle most of them and worry some. Apple’s whole ‘it just works’ philosophy is precisely that users shouldn’t have to care about the stuff that goes on behind the scenes.

With hindsight, I’d say the best thing Apple could have done would have been to release a white paper which explains all of this kind of stuff. It didn’t need to put it in its product pages. It could have been the kind of thing that only techies read. But it would then have been in the clear, and anyone who cares about it could have had all the facts.

It’s too late now. Now that the issue has become mainstream media news, any further explanations of other measures taken will be reported in the same breathless ‘look at all the other bad stuff Apple admits to doing’ manner.

But perhaps there is one thing it can do:

I disagree: it looks to me like exactly the sort of thing Apple would do.

Add in some intelligence – for example, always running at maximum performance when the phone is powered, and defaulting to gradually reducing performance as the battery level drops – and you’d have something which still ‘Just Works’ for those who don’t want to think about it, but which allows full control to those who do.

What’s your view? Should Apple implement Rambo’s power management slider? Take our poll, and share your thoughts in the comments.

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Avatar for Ben Lovejoy Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!

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