It’s hard to say which caused greater consternation. First a group of researchers determined that older iPhones were running slower once they were updated. Then Apple admitted that they were right, that Apple really was slowing down those iPhones.
But the revelations kept coming. First the iPhone 6 and 6S were affected by these slowdowns, now it’s the iPhone 7 as well as the iPhone SE. Apparently the iPhone 8 and iPhone X will be next. And reportedly Apple is doing the same thing with MacBooks.
Now that the issue is out in the open, it didn’t take long to reach the nation’s courts. Attorneys for the Wilshire Law Firm in Los Angeles have filed a class action suit in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California alleging that Apple has breached an implied contract and that Apple is guilty of “Trespass to Chattel,” which means that they messed around with your property.
The basis for this suit, which was filed on Dec. 21, is that Apple interfered with the operation of the plaintiff’s iPhones without permission, slowing down the operation of the phones, and thus interfered with the use of those iPhones. One of the assertions that’s most damning is that Apple never notified owners of the phones, nor sought permission to make adjustments.
The lawsuit is asking the court to provide relief to members of the class, which consists of all iPhone users who have ever owned an iPhone prior to the iPhone 8. The relief that’s requested includes requiring Apple to stop slowing down iPhones. In addition, it asks for financial restitution for the loss of use of the phones, for new batteries and other damages.
If successful, this lawsuit could be a major hit on Apple and the sad fact is that while some of what Apple did is probably a good idea, Apple could have handled it far better.
The problem for Apple is that the company took unilateral action that substantially affected the iPhones that people bought and then rather than explaining how it wanted to solve the technical issues and trying to convince them to opt into the updates, it tried to pretend it never happened.
The truth is what Apple did in regards to slowing down processors in older phones was something it felt it needed to do to address a real technical problem.
Batteries, even Lithium ion batteries, do change as they age and they become less capable of handling the demands of a CPU during intense processing. This lessening of capabilities results in a loss of the available voltage to run the CPU, with the result that the device shuts down before the battery is fully discharged.
Considering the history of these batteries in mobile devices, shutting down is a good thing.
Perhaps you remember last year’s Samsung Galaxy Note 7 debacle that reached the point where these phones were banned form most forms of transportation because their batteries would overheat, catch fire and sometimes explode.
One reason for Apple’s actions was to avoid the possibility of such dangerous events as well as to prevent the sudden shutdowns.
But Apple never told anyone outside of the company about what it was doing to try to try to resolve the issue. Nor has Apple explained why even fairly new iPhones, such as the iPhone 7, had these power limitations. Instead, Apple just sent out iOS updates that affected iPhone performance and power consumption, but never revealed this in update notes.
What’s worse Apple also never revealed that the slow-down could be reversed by simply replacing the battery. Such a replacement is somewhat expensive at $79 for customers without Apple Care, but it’s far less expensive than buying a new iPhone. For customers with Apple Care, battery replacement is free.
Now Apple finds itself in a quandary. If the battery control software that slows the processor down is eliminated, then there’s a chance that an iPhone battery could overheat and catch fire, just like those Note 7 batteries did.
If that happens, then Apple will get stuck with another lawsuit. If it doesn’t, Apple could be liable for secretly interfering with the iPhone’s operation. But lawsuit or no lawsuit Apple has to deal with a lot of unhappy iPhone owners.
What Apple needs to do instead is to adopt transparency as a method of interacting with their customers. For example, if iOS is going to slow down an iPhone because of its battery condition then there should be a message to the user to that effect.
Perhaps Apple could create a pop-up that says something like, “The battery in your iPhone is showing normal signs of age. So to protect your iPhone, we’re slowing performance down until you replace your battery.”
Once the owner taps the “OK” button, that effectively gives permission for the slow-down and it informs the user that it’s happening. In reality, Apple could have protected itself by simply putting the permission request into those interminable terms of service that you have to agree to when you update iOS that few people except class action lawyers read closely anyway.
Instead, Apple chose not to tell anyone what was happening, apparently in the belief that they didn’t need to. Unfortunately, by deciding what was best for its customers without telling them, Apple chose a road that’s becoming less tenable these days.
There may have been a day when Apple’s customers would simply have trusted the company. But trust in companies and institutions has eroded recently as it’s become clear that such trust is frequently misplaced. Apple is one such example, and it’s going to be difficult for the company to regain such trust, assuming it ever can.