Different perspectives on current issues

Optionally environmental

A lot of ink has been spilt (a lot of bytes have been published is more accurate, but probably not as catchy) regarding Apple’s decision to remove the power adapter and headphones from all new iPhones sold following the launch of the iPhone 12 series. This includes the iPhone 11, iPhone XR and iPhone SE models that have shipped with these accessories since their launch, but will no longer do so going forward.

Apple reasons that this move is better for the environment due to less packaging used, which results in less transportation required. As expected, the hot takes posits this as either environmentally disingenuous or a money grab due to more items needing to be bought, all things being historically equal.

My take on this is that Apple did not go far enough – Apple needs to remove the Lightning cable as well. I’ll explain why after a little history lesson.


Power through history

Pre-iPhone and USB power, every mobile phone included a unique power adapter (or charger). It had to be unique because power adapters in this era had specific voltage (measured in volts or V) and current (measured in amperes or A). Using an adapter with a higher voltage or lower current than the phone requirements can lead to fires and explosions. Also in this era, the cable was permanently attached to the adapter. In short, every device needed its own adapter, were rarely interchangeable, and you needed a whole new adapter even if just the cable was damaged.

Next came the iPhone 5W adapter era, which encompassed the first-generation iPhone up to iPhone 11. The 5W adapter is named for its watts (W), where 5 is the product of it providing 5V and 1A. As a separate USB-A cable and power adapter, you could choose to charge from a computer, though that was unlikely. Most computers at the iPhone’s launch in 2007 were USB 2.0, which were only capable of providing half the charging speed at 2.5W. USB 3.0 was only introduced in 2008 with 4.5W charging, which was still less than the 5W adapter. Not helping matters through most of the 2010s was that most computers shipped with limited USB 3.0 ports, which many consumers preferred to use for fast data transfers with portable storage instead.

This was also the era of massive proliferation of USB power adapters. Many were cheap, both in prices as low as RM5, and in components. The price savings was achieved by using poor quality components that were unable to deliver the stated power ratings. Leading to higher voltage and/or lower current. Leading to fires and explosions. So in summary, the included 5W adapter delivered a fast and trusted charging experience.

Today, we are in the USB Power Delivery (USB PD) and wireless charging era. USB PD solved most of our charging issues with USB-C port universality, 2-way power (the traditional USB-A is power out only), variable voltage and current with automatic selection, and up to 100W of power transfer. A more convenient way to charge is through Qi wireless where you place your phone on a pad with a small sweet spot. The caveat here is that if you miss this spot when placing your phone, or your phone vibrates off this spot, your phone will not charge.


Power options

Apple introduced iPhone MagSafe charging as a way to solve the Qi sweet spot issue, but they are not alone. Reputable companies such as Anker and Belkin are at the forefront of innovating in the charging space with multiple device chargers and the usage of gallium nitride (GaN) to make chargers more portable.

To the consumer, this means that there is now an abundance of choice:

  • Do you prefer wireless? If yes, the included Lightning cable becomes e-waste.
  • Do you prefer a different cable length? A shorter cable is better for charging from a computer or power bank, while a longer cable may be needed based on the location of the power source in your home or car. Using wireless charging usually requires a longer cable as the pad is mostly centred on furniture, compared to just at the edge of furniture for wired options. In this case, the included Lightning cable becomes e-waste.
  • Do you want to connect to or charge from a computer with only USB-A? If yes, the included Lightning cable becomes e-waste.
  • Do you have other devices to charge? If yes, you may prefer an adapter with a larger power supply. Apple sells 30W, 61W and 96W models for various MacBooks that can also charge iPhones. Side note – thanks to USB PD’s variable voltage and current, any adapter with a higher wattage will work, for example, a 65W adapter in place of a 61W.
  • Do you want to simultaneously charge multiple devices? If yes, you may prefer an adapter with multiple USB ports. Some even have wireless pads included. Side note – while you can charge many small devices, it is unlikely to find an adapter today that allows charging more than 1 computer due to limitations in power and heat management in a compact physical package.


Audio out and audio in

Anecdotally, I quite often witness people at restaurants playing games or watching videos with the sound blaring from their phone speakers compared to the mostly headphone wearing public transport users. Coupled with the frequent sighting of the police pulling drivers over for mobile phone usage, this suggests a significant number of people simply do not use headphones.

On the other end of this spectrum are the people who prefer better sounding headphones and/or the freedom that only wireless headphones can provide. Personally, I first joined the better sound group about 7 years ago, then took up membership in the wireless group as well about 4 years ago.


Environmentally sound

The environmental life cycle should always be viewed in totality. Apple should be commended for reducing packaging and transport, but I believe they can take it further. But why haven’t they? I hope this is simply part of change management from Apple. The willingness of the press and competing brands to condemn Apple’s decision validates a step-by-step process.

In my view, the sheer number of power and audio choices available today to fit the different needs of iPhone users is what tips the balance in favour of removing previously bundled accessories. It just happens to also be a good choice for the environment. Finally, if we are honest as consumers, we are at fault for demanding free items to sweeten the deal in our purchases. If you find yourself not using the free items or purchasing a different accessory due to a requirement, a preference, or an upgrade, then the free items have just been ticketed for the landfill.

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.