Apple made a startling confession in December: After years of denials, the company admitted it had been quietly slowing down older iPhones. The measure was meant to preserve battery life for devices with degrading batteries and prevent them from accidentally shutting down. But to some, it was evidence for the theory of “planned obsolescence”—that Apple reduced the performance of old iPhone models to entice you to buy a new handset.
Within days, it became apparent that this wasn’t your typical Apple drama. Apple currently faces 32 class-action lawsuits about its phone-slowing move. The company issued a formal apology for not being clear and upfront about the tactic, as well as a discount on replacement batteries. The apology, while not unique in itself, was atypical in that it explained its device slow down technique in detail. In addition to the note to consumers, Apple CEO Tim Cook promised an iOS update that would address the issue:
“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,” Apple wrote in the letter published on its website.
But in a recent interview with ABC News, Cook acknowledged something more: That iPhone owners would also be able to turn off this so-called “battery throttling” feature in a future iOS update. Apple seems to be going above and beyond in response to the outcry against its performance-throttling revelations, which is a stark contrast to its past behavior.
Take the iPhone 4’s “Antennagate” issue in 2010. iPhone owners complained that the device’s cellular reception degraded when it was held a certain (common) way. Apple partially apologized for the issue, insisting that it was not an antenna design flaw but rather a problem with the way the iPhone calculated cellular signal strength. Apple issued a software update shortly thereafter that included this new algorithm and a slightly redesigned signal strength graphic. Apple did not, however, give iPhone users any greater insight into their phone’s cellular performance. The launch of Apple Maps in 2012 also warranted an apology from the company, but again, no deep explanation of the issue; Cook merely suggested iOS users download Google Maps or another alternative while the company worked on “improving Maps.”
In addressing its battery throttling criticism, Apple seems to have made a 180—from keeping iPhone battery health metrics in the dark to giving users unprecedented knowledge and control of that aspect of their phone experience. Until now, most iPhone owners probably haven’t given much thought to their phone’s battery health and what it could mean for overall performance. The most dedicated could download a third-party app to check or schedule an appointment with Apple Support, which could remotely run a diagnostic on your behalf. Now, with Apple’s next iOS update, iPhone owners will be able to “see for themselves” if battery conditions are impacting device performance—and decide whether or not to meter that performance, at the risk of possible device shutdowns.
On the one hand, this move feels unprecedented. It’s a level of device performance transparency that no OS readily offers. But if Apple has had the ability to measure your device’s battery health for some time now—or at least know its battery degradation trajectory—it seems like an option that could have been included in a past iOS update. While some iPhone owners may have upgraded their devices less frequently, surely others would have seen that their device was performing sub-optimally and been pushed to purchase a new phone sooner than otherwise. (Unless, of course, most of these older phones’ batteries are performing just fine, as conspiracy theorists believe.)
Over the years, Apple has granted iPhone users greater and greater controls over their device, including options for making the experience more kid-safe and settings for reducing power consumption to save battery life. Under other circumstances, both the ability to put your phone in or out of a performance-enhancing mode and to be able to monitor battery health would be laudable. Instead, they’re being issued as a make-up present to peeved owners of older iPhones—and the truth of the matter is, being able to switch on or off battery throttling is merely giving consumers control over a software update initially released as a bug fix. Apple is clearly hoping that by being extra transparent with these new “features,” you’ll forgive and forget. But batterygate has eroded the trust of many iPhone owners, and it will take time for that to change.