Batterygate - planned obsolescence in iPhones?

by George Lovell | | 0 comments

Following on from our previous post which investigated the link between software updates and reduced battery life, we will now take a look at the infamous "Batterygate" scandal.

In 2016, Apple released iOS 10. A substantial proportion of iPhone users reported issues relating to performance, whereby their device was running more slowly than before the update, i.e. struggling to perform complex tasks such as gaming or GPS navigation.

It was later discovered that Apple had deliberately introduced such measures in iOS 10.

This is called battery throttling.

The Problem:

Lithium batteries degrade over time. They lose capacity. A degraded battery loses its ability to provide peak power to the processor.

The processor asks for 3 volts of power to complete a task, but the battery cannot provide it, so it shuts off.

The Solution:

Battery throttling is a software algorithm, which suppresses the system in order to control peak power demand.

This prevents unexpected shut downs, rebooting, or rapid discharge.

Think of this as an eco-mode for your phone. You sacrifice speed for endurance and reliability.

Restricting performance in order to improve battery life is logical, and is generally common practice.

It's a feature, not a bug.

Apple provided a statement to explain why this happens:

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."

Apple later released an update which allows the user to view the battery capacity in settings, as well as the option to disable battery throttling.

Sounds fair enough, right?

Apple's costly error was the fact that they denied the implementation of battery throttling for some time. It wasn't until a Reddit user exposed the software that Apple owned up to it. This hiccup cost them $310 million in a class-action lawsuit, with millions of iPhone users in the US receiving compensation. An equivalent case is currently underway in the UK, in which 25 million iPhone users could be entitled to £30 compensation.

"Instead of doing the honorable and legal thing by their customers and offering a free replacement, repair service or compensation, Apple instead misled people by concealing a tool in software updates that slowed their devices by up to 58%"
- Justin Gutmann  

This scandal has left a bitter taste in people's mouths, and has justly made consumers less trusting and more suspicious around Apple's products and business practices.

Critics have labelled this as
planned obsolescence, which is a policy of planning or designing a product with an artificially limited useful life or a purposely frail design, so that it ceases to function prematurely. This strategy aims to maximise sales volume in the long-run by shortening product life-span, thus forcing users into purchasing more replacements or upgrades. Great examples of this are lightbulbs with short lifespan, revised textbooks, and poor quality clothing.  

In this case, we disagree with the consensus. We argue that a slower phone is more useful than one which shuts down whilst you are using it. Yes, this might encourage the user to purchase a replacement, but we are confined to current technological limits which have to operate within the laws of electrical science. We have to make a compromise somewhere. This particular compromise can be negated with a replacement battery, rather than a replacement phone. This actually extends the product life-cycle.

iPhone batteries (at the time) were inferior to other manufacturers. So yes, we can be justly critical of Apple for not making more durable batteries, which would have somewhat mitigated the problem. Also, at the time, Apple charged £79 for a battery replacement. Once the news broke and Apple came under fire, they reduced it to £29 - temporarily, in order to appease their critics. Batteries are consumable - they should be cheap and easy to replace!

This is not to say that Apple should be liberated of all claims of planned obsolescence. Attempts and measures to make their products unrepairable or to restrict consumer repair options are forms of planned obsolescence:

> Telling customers that they cannot replace a faulty battery if they have a tiny crack on their back glass, and that their only option is to purchase a new device.

> "Signature faults" such as "Touch disease" on iPhone 6, or "Audio disease" on iPhone 7 - which typically occur 13 months after the product is sold with its 12-month warranty.

In our opinion, Batterygate was overblown. Apple should 
absolutely be held accountable for their dubious business practices, but it's not always exactly clear how or to what extent they are culpable.
Thanks for reading!

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