Dear World: Apple Slowing Down iPhones with Degraded Batteries Is NOT Planned Obsolescence

2 minute read
| The Back Page

For the love of everything remotely logical, please stop calling Apple’s decision to slow down iPhones with degraded batteries “planned obsolescence.” I have been the loudest to yell that Apple should have told users it was doing this, but it’s a case of corporate opacity, not planned obsolescence.

DUH in blocks

In a word, duh

To wit, we have a report from French publication The Local over a suit in France from Halte à l’Obsolescence Programmée (HOP – Stop Planned Obsolescence).

“Apple has put in place a global strategy of programmed obsolescence in order to boost its sales [of iPhones]” of new iPhones, the group said, according to The Local.

No. No it didn’t. That’s not what Apple did. There’s no indication nor evidence that Apple did so. What Apple did do was slow down some iPhones with degraded batteries. Not all old iPhones, some iPhones with degraded batteries. The company did this to make sure they didn’t unexpectedly shut down when those devices demanded more power than the degraded battery could offer.

Also, these aren’t faulty batteries, as I’ve seen in some reports, they’re degraded batteries. Batteries degrade. Depending on your use and charging habits, they can degrade at faster or slower rates. This is freaking science, people.

It’s the farthest thing from planned obsolescence that one can imagine. Or, as yours truly tweeted:


Black Is White and Up Is Down

Here’s where it gets even stupider. French group HOP is suing based on a 2015 French law that made it a crime to “deliberately reduce the lifespan of a product to increase the rate of replacement.”

Hey, guess what, Apple’s action extends the usable life of iPhones with degraded batteries, not shortens it.

I’ve been ranting on this subject in our podcasts for a week, but let me say it here: Apple’s crime in this controversy is limited to not telling users what it was doing. Worse, lawsuits and articles like this one from The Local feed this stupid narrative that Apple artificially slows down all old iPhones, for which there is no evidence that Apple has ever done that sort of thing.

And these articles aren’t limited to France. I’ve seen them all over the mainstream and tech press. Seeking Alpha had one particularly bad piece titled “Apple’s Planned Obsolescence Strategy.” Fortunately, the site also ran a response piece called Apple: iPhone Throttling Is Not Planned Obsolescence, but there’s so much of this stuff out there, not to mention eight lawsuits in the U.S. with another in Israel, and this idiotic suit in France.

If Apple Wants Someone to Blame, It Should Look in the Corporate Mirror

Apple has only itself to blame. All Apple had to do was tell users their battery had degraded and that the device was being put in a special power-saving mode until that was done.

Because it didn’t, Apple loses these lawsuits no matter what happens in the courtroom. These suits and stories are going to feed this idiotic “planned obsolescence” cultural meme for years to come.

9 Comments Add a comment

  1. Rick Allen

    Bryan

    Thank you for trying to get the proper reason for this slowdown out there. The bigger issue is that people don’t really want to hear it. Unfortunate that Apple has had so many bad press stories in the last few months. They will feel this one for a long time as you stated on ACM.

    “They’ve Lost!”

  2. John Kheit

    Very well put. iPhones were literally hard crashing when the degraded batteries couldn’t put out enough juice. Those with a memory will remember the SCREAMS that my iPhone shuts off when it’s cold, begging apple to fix that issue when the battery cannot supply enough juice. This is the fix. In some sense, they actually did give notice of this, when they applied the patch, it was for when iPhone batteries couldn’t put out enough juice, i.e., in very cold weather, and also when the batteries get worn out over time.

    The only thing that’s criminal here, is Apple’s PR department for not flagging this as an issue, and heading it off with a simple acknowledgment to the user via dialogue box when the battery goes below 80% worn:

    “Dear user, please note your battery is old and worn out to the point where it can no longer provide enough energy at peak processor times. To extend your iPhone life, we will run the phone at reduced speed so it does not randomly crash during peak processor strain. You will need to replace your battery or your phone will continue to operate with reduced speed in a battery life extension mode. <BUTTON/ Acknowledge and run in reduced speed> <BUTTON2/Acknowledge and run in reduced speed and setup Apple Genius appointment to replace batter>

  3. johnbpatson

    Sorry but you are wrong. When peoples’ phones slow down, or seem to get buggy, they buy new ones. Apple knows this which is why, in spite of all the saving battery BS, they did it. If it was just a battery thing they would have told people, or added a feature in an automatic upgrade.
    It is not as if they do not have form.
    I am writing this on a 2006 iMac using OS10.68 which is becoming increasingly more useless because Apple refuses to “support” it any more. The machine works perfectly, but they want people to buy new ones so they mess up the software. Now they do it with 2010 Macs. Yours will be next.
    The phone thing (which I a reasonably certain will result in a fine in France) is just the latest symptom of a company forgetting that customers keep it afloat.
    The phone saga (which I am prepared to bet will result in the

  4. NEALC5

    This issue is as old as time. Very few companies support older products past their useful life. I have a broken button on my $500, 10 yr old Carrier “Intelligent” thermostat. The plastic wore out. I CANNOT simply get a replacement button or outside case. I’ve been told that I MUST buy a NEW $500 thermostat, which I admit is better (WiFi and all that), but not needed. All I need is a plastic button that costs maybe 10cents.

    A 2006 iMac is 11 years old. They don’t “mess up the software”. Newer OS and software simply will not run on older computers. Go find a 2006 Dell or HP, and try to put Windows 10 on it and run the current Microsoft Office 2016. You can’t. Something won’t be supported. The fact that your 2006 iMac still works perfectly is amazing. If you paid $1500 for it (and it was likely less), it cost you ~$11/month to use it over it’s life. That’s pretty damn good, considering $800 Windows PC’s last about 3 yrs at the most, which works out to $22/month.

    Now one may complain about the pace of technology change, and how our things don’t last as long as they used to (think washing machines, refrigerators and dishwashers), but I know Apple’s products last WAY longer than its competitors. Since 1987, I’ve gotten on average about 6 yrs useful life out of every Mac I’ve owned (Mac Plus, Mac IIci, G3 Mac, G4 Mac, iMac G5, 2009 Intel iMac and now 2015 iMac, along with laptops.

    • JBSlough

      Bravo. My sentiments exactly. if Apple has any problem it’s that their hardware outlasts thier software. I have a perfectly running G3 Tower, useless but how’s that Apple’s fault? Tech moves on. I think one of the problems here is how many people don’t even know how batteries work (a science education thing?) They’re ok with changing the battery in thier cars but on a smartphone they expect it to last forever. Maybe it’s that whole “works like magic” thing, no one actually consideres what’s going on inside.

  5. skipaq

    @johnbpatson, I wonder just how long one can expect Apple to support old hardware. I have a MacPlus that I bought in the mid-1980’s. Apple no longer updates MacOS 7; but the machine still runs fine. I haven’t done any work on it in nearly twenty years. It is obsolete: but still lovable.

    It is also a little off to compare an iMac (doesn’t run on batteries) with an iPhone (does run on batteries) and concluding that Apple has an across the board plan of obsolescence. When your car battery gets weak what do you do? Sue the auto maker claiming planned obsolescence. No, buy a new battery if the car has valuable use or buy a new car. Your phone battery gets weak and you have the same choices.

    Apple should have done a better job of letting us know what was going on. By the way, I am still using an iPhone 6 with no noticeable problems.

  6. jhorvatic

    Totally agree with you Bryan! Apple wants there customers to get the most out of there devices and not have them shutdown in the middle of something. To bad there are media outlets that just want to try and smear Apple with stupidity and some people will believe it. I think Apple will have a lot of technical data to show there case the only problem is will the judge have any common sense to listen or just bias against Apple.

  7. jtclayton

    As Brian says, the CPU throttling is defensible engineering, and the customer communication is indefensible issue avoidance.

    It needs to be repeated that one motivation underlies both things, namely, Apple needs you to acquiesce and buy a new iPhone on a short schedule. Don’t imagine that it’s not a powerful driver.

    On the issue of inevitably tanking batteries, there were several strategies available. By no coincidence, Apple chose the strategy that would push the most customers toward a new purchase, while hopefully alienating the least number of them.

    They kept phones with weak batteries from blowing up completely, but refrained from offering options that don’t feel good, and also don’t lead directly to new phone sales. The strategy got exposed, and now here we are.

  8. wab95

    Bryan:

    There are two elements to this controversy laden discussion, both equally important in my view for reasons that I will state in a moment, and one to which, I argue, most western commenters are culturally blind.

    (tldr: Apple should not lose any sleep over this kerfuffle)

    The first, you have adroitly argued, so I’ll be brief. Apple managing the battery performance of the iPhone is not planned obsolescence, and, as jtclayton has argued just above, is defensible from an engineering standpoint. The offence, rather, arises from Apple not being proactively forthcoming with this strategy, alerting people prior to implementing this software battery-management protocol, and, in the estimation of some, not providing users with a toggle switch to opt in or out. That latter is not a consensus view, but should be acknowledged. As it is not security related, I for one do not feel strongly about a toggle either way. All of this is the easy bit of this issue, as heated and unsettled as it remains for at least a vocal segment of the Apple user base. Now for the hard part.

    The outrage expressed toward Apple in both managing without notification and not being transparent about their decision to do so is cultural. This is not about good and evil or right and wrong in the absolute, but cultural norms and managing cultural-mediated expectations. Not surprisingly, the majority of the outrage, at least that I personally have read on social media, apart from the TMO comment section, has come from US-based users, even more so than from the Brits, who can be equally prickly about some issues, just not this one, at least thus far. There are two reasons for this, one is assumptions about motive (eg planned obsolescence or malfeasance by any other name), which has been discussed in your argument, so will not be restated here, and the other about individuality and, in this instance, individuality as expressed and manifested in personal property, ownership and domain.

    The west prioritises individuality over collective identify in general, but nowhere more uniquely than in the USA, where individuality and individual ownership can quash collective imperative and societal security even if it results in repeated loss of life at scale. The history of seat belt legislation and health care are two historical examples, access to military style assault weapons and multi-round magazines is a current one. The aim here is not to litigate the merits of any of these topics, merely to illustrate the balance of power in favour of the individual over society, at least until there is a paradigm shift, as occurred with seat belts in automobiles. How is this relevant to so called ‘iPhone throttling’? Simple. Who owns the device, and who, therefore has primary domain over said device?

    In the west, if I purchase anything, it becomes ‘mine’, or more to the point, ‘MINE!!!’. I own it, and I can do ‘whatever I wont widdit’. Full stop. We are accustomed to this with most purchases in everything from real property to small appliances and all things in between. We only grudgingly accept any imposition on the limits of our freedom to do as we wish with our property, and frequently push back through the courts when we feel our freedoms are unfairly impinged. I can modify my automobile anyway I want, but it must still meet state emissions and safety standards; I can personalise my licence plate, but it cannot be profane. Both of these have had legal challenges. Even more recently, we’ve seen this with our rights over our children (granted not our property, but under our individual domain as parents) and whether or not they have to be vaccinated in order to attend schools. This issue has yet to be settled, but thus far individuals have successfully avoided vaccination at the expense of outbreaks in childhood diseases such as measles and pertussis.

    With the iPhone, we have had arguments about our right to modify, jailbreak, or side load apps into it, because we’ve purchased the device and its ‘MINE!!!’. We continue to have this argument relative to iOS updates and our inability to ‘downgrade’ if we don’t like the performance hit associated with the updated OS; and we have argued that this uni-directional migration is part of a nefarious ‘planned obsolescence’ of our devices to compel us to spend more money on new ones. Sound familiar? We’ve now come full circle on this topic of assigned motive and individual liberty over our purchases.

    What this argument misses is that, while we may indeed own the individual device, that device is but an access point to an ecosystem that we do not own; Apple do. Not only have Apple created that ecosystem, but they curate it, protect it, and continue to evolve it as technology and their own R&D permit. Apple own the ecosystem. The chief feature of that system, essential to the user experience, is security. Apple have decided in favour of the collective over the individual in the matter of the security of this system. No one individual is permitted to so modify their device, and maintain full access to that system such that they can imperil the community of users. Fair? Many would argue, ‘yes’. Democratic? Most decidedly not. Your only vote is with your wallet, and those opposed voted long ago. Good luck with that choice. This is the driver for the uni-directional iOS migration, as it is the most recent iOS that will be prioritised for security updates, many of which cannot be applied to older versions. Don’t take my word for it; read Apple’s own arguments.

    While I agree with your recent statement on ACM that Apple have lost this case or argument, court litigation notwithstanding, I differ on the duration of its impact and longevity. Why? Cultural predisposition and the rapidly changing demographics that make up the majority share of Apple’s user base. Don’t just ‘think different’l, ‘think Asia’. Specifically China and India, both of which have a history of placing a greater emphasis on collective welfare over individual ownership, with an almost Spockian view of ‘the needs of the many’ outweighing ‘the needs of the few’ (yes, I know that came from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities).

    Were I to advise Apple (and no one at Apple have every solicited my advice on anything), I would advise to do as they have done, and move on. This will not only blow over, but in time, such events will be accorded a very different reception by a very different demographic. US, and indeed Western cultural norms will soon be overwhelmed by an emerging demographic transition in the user base that will value and prioritise collective well-being and subordinate individual liberty to the same. Again, this is not a value judgement, or an argument about right and wrong, good and evil, but a declaration of inevitability. Demographic transition, and its medium, culture, remain prime drivers of behaviour and the rules of engagement. And change in all living things, including communities, is inevitable.

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