What Apple should have said about slowing down iPhones when the batteries wear out

Photo: Zazzle

After news reports revealed that Apple was slowing down older iPhones with worn-out batteries, the company posted a public message to explain itself. It also offered to replace your battery for $29. This statement is clearer and more transparent than most corporate statements after missteps, but not up to Apple’s usual standards.

Apple attempts to explain why it was throttling performance

John Poole, a developer at Geekbench, was the first to announce what he had found: “I believe (as do others) that Apple introduced a change to limit performance when battery condition decreases past a certain point.” Wired and other publications confirmed the report, and Apple announced that the slowdowns were real.

Apple has a history of making clear statements when it becomes enmeshed in controversy, for example, when it refused to crack the encryption on a terrorist’s iPhone. But Apple also has a paternalist streak; basically, the company acts as if it has determined what is best for you and your devices and feels no need to explain in further detail. These two tendencies collided in its statement about the batteries. Here’s the statement with my commentary.

A Message to Our Customers about iPhone Batteries and Performance

We’ve been hearing feedback from our customers about the way we handle performance for iPhones with older batteries and how we have communicated that process. We know that some of you feel Apple has let you down. We apologize. There’s been a lot of misunderstanding about this issue, so we would like to clarify and let you know about some changes we’re making.

Commentary: Apple gets credit for identifying the issue and apologizing for something. But this apologies should identify both who was hurt — as this one does — and what the company did wrong. In this case, Apple has not admitted to doing anything wrong, it just describes how some people were disappointed in the communication. So this is actually a non-apology.

First and foremost, we have never — and would never — do anything to intentionally shorten the life of any Apple product, or degrade the user experience to drive customer upgrades. Our goal has always been to create products that our customers love, and making iPhones last as long as possible is an important part of that.

Commentary: Sounds great. In practical terms, though, people get new phones when their old phones slow down and the batteries wear out, especially, as in the case of Apple, when you can’t replace the battery. Perhaps engineers at Apple would “never . . . do anything to intentionally shorten the life of any Apple product,” but the effect is the same: people go out and get new phones.

How batteries age

All rechargeable batteries are consumable components that become less effective as they chemically age and their ability to hold a charge diminishes. Time and the number of times a battery has been charged are not the only factors in this chemical aging process.

Device use also affects the performance of a battery over its lifespan. For example, leaving or charging a battery in a hot environment can cause a battery to age faster. These are characteristics of battery chemistry, common to lithium-ion batteries across the industry.

A chemically aged battery also becomes less capable of delivering peak energy loads, especially in a low state of charge, which may result in a device unexpectedly shutting itself down in some situations.

To help customers learn more about iPhone’s rechargeable battery and the factors affecting its performance, we’ve posted a new support article, iPhone Battery and Performance.

It should go without saying that we think sudden, unexpected shutdowns are unacceptable. We don’t want any of our users to lose a call, miss taking a picture or have any other part of their iPhone experience interrupted if we can avoid it.

Commentary: Battery aging is a complex issue. This description doesn’t fully explain it, using weasel words like “less effective,” “less capable,” and “may result.” The reason for these weasel words is that it is impossible to explain this issue accurately without a blizzard of numbers and technical jargon. The linked page goes into even more detail, but is full of more descriptions of factors and possibilities. The key statement here, though, is that Apple made this change to prevent another problem: unexpected shutdowns. While what Apple did was not transparent — they didn’t tell anyone they were slowing phones down — it is at least defensible, because a phone that shuts down unexpectedly is even more of a problem than a slow one.

Preventing unexpected shutdowns

About a year ago in iOS 10.2.1, we delivered a software update that improves power management during peak workloads to avoid unexpected shutdowns on iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, iPhone 6s, iPhone 6s Plus, and iPhone SE. With the update, iOS dynamically manages the maximum performance of some system components when needed to prevent a shutdown. While these changes may go unnoticed, in some cases users may experience longer launch times for apps and other reductions in performance.

Customer response to iOS 10.2.1 was positive, as it successfully reduced the occurrence of unexpected shutdowns. We recently extended the same support for iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus in iOS 11.2.

Of course, when a chemically aged battery is replaced with a new one, iPhone performance returns to normal when operated in standard conditions.

Commentary: More self-justification and weasel words, like “While these changes may go unnoticed, in some cases users may experience . . . ”

Recent user feedback

Over the course of this fall, we began to receive feedback from some users who were seeing slower performance in certain situations. Based on our experience, we initially thought this was due to a combination of two factors: a normal, temporary performance impact when upgrading the operating system as iPhone installs new software and updates apps, and minor bugs in the initial release which have since been fixed.

We now believe that another contributor to these user experiences is the continued chemical aging of the batteries in older iPhone 6 and iPhone 6s devices, many of which are still running on their original batteries.

Commentary: More hedging, with “some users” ” another contributor.” This is a drawn-out and complicated explanation of Apple’s identification of the problem. It also doesn’t link to any of the published reports about the slowdown. (It’s likely that any Apple PR staffer who linked to an outside report of this kind would be instantly fired, if not executed.)

Addressing customer concerns

We’ve always wanted our customers to be able to use their iPhones as long as possible. We’re proud that Apple products are known for their durability, and for holding their value longer than our competitors’ devices.

To address our customers’ concerns, to recognize their loyalty and to regain the trust of anyone who may have doubted Apple’s intentions, we’ve decided to take the following steps:

  • Apple is reducing the price of an out-of-warranty iPhone battery replacement by $50 — from $79 to $29 — for anyone with an iPhone 6 or later whose battery needs to be replaced, available worldwide through December 2018. Details will be provided soon on apple.com.
  • Early in 2018, we will issue an iOS software update with new features that give users more visibility into the health of their iPhone’s battery, so they can see for themselves if its condition is affecting performance.
  • As always, our team is working on ways to make the user experience even better, including improving how we manage performance and avoid unexpected shutdowns as batteries age.

At Apple, our customers’ trust means everything to us. We will never stop working to earn and maintain it. We are able to do the work we love only because of your faith and support — and we will never forget that or take it for granted.

Commentary: Actions speak louder than words. Apple’s promise to actually replace batteries at a low cost is what matters most here. Their move to increase transparency into battery health is another positive move. The platitudes about constant improvements and customers’ trust are meaningless, but the actions are meaningful.

This statement could have been shorter and clearer

This statement is not up to Apple’s usual standards for transparency and clarity. Here’s a version that could have done the same job more effectively, with less self-justification:

Why we slow down iPhones as the batteries wear out, and how we’ll fix the problem

Our customers use our phones all day long and charge them repeatedly. This can make the batteries wear out over a period of years. Worn batteries can’t live up to all the tasks that users expect of them, which caused unexpected shutdowns in these phones.

We tried to solve the problem in an upgrade we pushed out a year ago. It slows the phone down if the battery is worn. While this fixes the problem of the unexpected shutdowns, it also annoyed some customers. It didn’t help that we failed to be transparent about what we were doing. We’re sorry that, in an attempt to fix the problem, we’ve secretly been slowing down some phones.

To fix the problem, we’ll now offer a battery replacement for $29 to anyone with an iPhone 6 or later, through December of 2018. We’ll also push out an update that lets you understand more about the health of your battery. Since we don’t allow third-party vendors to replace iPhone batteries, this is the best we can do.

We work pretty hard to create the best possible products. We’ll have to work a little harder on being clear about what’s happening with them.

Even if you like Apple products, as I do, that doesn’t mean the company can’t do better in the way it communicates.

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