On is more usable than off

I am an iPhone user. For many years, I was also an iPhone seller and a customer facing representative in troubleshooting and repair. And I don’t understand why there is a battery controversy regarding the iPhone 6 and iOS 10.2.1.

Recently, a group of European consumer organisations have demanded compensation, otherwise the group will initiate legal action. This is after the Italian government fined Apple €10 million (RM48 million) and the French government likewise levied €25 million (RM120 milllion). Apple also agreed to a class-action settlement of up to $500 million (RM2 billion) in their home state of California.

Let’s take a look at the reasons given for these fines.

The Italian antitrust authority stated that the iOS update for iPhones “had caused serious dysfunctions and reduced performance significantly, thereby accelerating the process of replacing them”. It also chides Apple for not providing clients adequate information about the impact of the new software “or any means of restoring the original functionality of the products”.

The French antitrust authority issued statements that were generally similar to the Italian statement.

I can agree that Apple did not disclose the potential slowing down of iPhones with aging batteries when iOS 10.2.1 was initially released by only mentioning the usual bug fixes and improvements. If we accept this logic, then Apple similarly did not disclose that they fixed older iPhones that could potentially shut down randomly and get stuck in a restart loop. As a user, I prefer that my iPhone continued to work, albeit occasionally slower, than to not work at all.

I am perplexed by the statement about the inability to revert to the original functionality accelerating replacement purchases. Again, I agree that Apple does not provide a way to revert iOS updates. However, from a user’s perspective, and assuming I could actually revert the software, I do not see how it is beneficial for me to get a faster phone that may randomly shut down and become essentially unusable.

In my earlier piece about the benefits of the A13 Bionic, I mentioned that a slower phone is a key driver for new phone purchases. I stand by that statement due to my experience working at various Apple Resellers.

However, consider this scenario. In Malaysia, the iPhone 8 started at RM3,650 at launch in late-2017, while the minimum wage is only RM1,200. This disparity plays a part in creating a large network of third-party repairers that provide a new battery replacement service for about RM100. Apple Service Providers offer the same replacement at RM200, with a discounted price of RM130 offered in 2018. If I were affected by the slowdown, I can choose between a high of RM200 to make my iPhone 6/6s/7 perform like new again, and a low of RM3,650 to get 2017’s new iPhone. I personally guided many customers through this choice while working at an Apple Reseller and can confidently say that no replacement purchases were forced.

Further, the stating of “serious dysfunctions and reduced performance significantly” seems like mere grandstanding by the governments to justify the fines they have levied. All batteries, including rechargeable batteries, have a finite lifespan. Most of us have faced this because at some point, the phone you are used to charging once and using all-day now needs to be charged a few times a day.

Less visible is the fact that batteries also provide different peak voltages depending on their charge state. A 100% charged battery provides the highest voltage that also enables peak processor performance, such as playing 3D games or searching through a large Excel file. Almost all manufacturers benchmark their new devices’ speed with a fully charged battery as this will ensure peak performance reporting.

A battery between 90% and 10% has a slightly lower peak voltage which is good for most use cases, but will also report slightly slower performance in benchmarking. Once the battery is below 10%, the voltage it can supply starts falling off a cliff and could be as little as half of what a fully charged battery can provide.

As a battery ages, it can no longer reach the 100% charge. If it can only charge to the 90%-10% range, the voltage it can provide falls accordingly. Attempting to force performance into the 100% voltage peak will usually cause overheating, thus triggering a fail safe mechanism that is designed to prevent such occurrences. Do note that your phone will still report an aged battery as being 100% charged, as single charge and battery lifespans are two different measures. I believe most people would be quite alarmed if their phone reports a lesser percentage as fully charged as the months go by, although that would be the actual battery capacity.

Thus, Apple’s solution to prevent the possibility of random shut downs was to limit the peak voltage that the processor can operate with when a battery has reported its lifespan at less than 80%. And this only affects functions that push for peak performance. For example, there will be no effect when taking a photo, but perhaps it will take a tick or two longer when applying filters to the photo. This is why the performance throttling was first discovered by people who were benchmarking their iPhones after iOS 10.2.1 was installed.

I believe the European governments erred in their rulings if we consider the real impact consumers faced. Apple’s update allowed customers to:

  • Do nothing for an occasionally slower iPhone that remained functional.
  • Replace the battery to regain “like new” functionality.
  • Purchase a new phone.

The option they did not offer was to have your iPhone randomly turn off, rendering it essentially unusable. The Brazilian courts agree with me.