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Apple slowing down iPhones was a communications failure, not a technical one

by Michael Selvidge on Jan 8, 2018

Ending years of speculation, Apple admitted on December 20th that older versions of the iPhone were being slowed down by its iOS software. The reason, Apple said, is to counteract the effects of aging on the iPhone’s lithium-ion battery.

To be clear: Apple didn’t slow down the iPhone to extend battery life. It did so to prevent the user’s phone from shutting down unexpectedly in cases where the battery was no longer able to provide enough voltage to the processor for taxing operations. This is actually a pretty smart software move on Apple’s part; what wasn’t smart was keeping this information from its users.

The news that Apple purposely slowed down older iPhones has been a PR disaster for the company. Those who have long accused the company of degrading performance on old iPhones to encourage consumers to buy new ones now have an “I told you so” moment. But things didn’t have to be this way. If Apple was transparent about the issue of degrading batteries and took on the challenge of explaining this complex issue to its customers, it could have avoided the fallout.

The blowback

A week after Apple admitted it slowed older iPhones, it apologized to its users with the following statement:

We know that some of you feel Apple has let you down. We apologize…we have never—and would—do anything to intentionally shorten the life of any Apple product, or degrade the user experience to drive customer upgrades.”

Apple’s apology may be genuine (and I believe it to be), but the unshakable perception among some users, observers (and lawyers) is that Apple did indeed participate in planned obsolescence—especially given the years of conspiracy theories surrounding this very notion. And perception can be enough to alter mobile consumer behaviors. To make things right for its customers, Apple committed to replacing batteries in older iPhones for $29, instead of the usual $79.

It’s not what Apple did that landed them in hot water with customers, but how they did it. Quoting Shara Tibken on CNET:

“Direct battery fixes certainly would have made the most sense. Even allowing that a software tweak was the only way Apple could have proceeded—untrue, but just for argument’s sake—it had a much better option than making its software solution covert…Rather than quietly push out an update that crimped older iPhones, it should have made that throttling opt-in.”

Apple warns MacBook users when their batteries need to be serviced, so it’s odd they didn’t apply this logic to the iPhone as well. Was this because Apple wanted to keep the iPhone user experience as simple as possible, or because the company didn’t want to explain the complexities of lithium-ion battery technology to its customers? It’s a flimsy argument either way.

Will this be the final straw for iPhone users? Is the collective impact of throttling performance and misleading communication going to turn off the average iPhone owner and depress future sales? Not likely, but it does show the ramifications of doing things under the noses of customers. Apple now faces over 23 lawsuits and damage to its brand identity.

Learning from Apple’s mistakes

Our smartphones are a huge part of our lives. They are our connection to the world, entertainment, commerce, transit, and personal creativity. With smartphones so critical to our daily lives, it’s easy to understand the immediate backlash Apple received for modifying its users’ phones without full disclosure.

It would have been so much easier for Apple to simply explain to its customers that it would occasionally slow their iPhones down in order to prevent aggravating shutdowns and reboots. Apple’s cardinal sin was being opaque with customers and hiding critical information about their personal devices.

Let’s be honest: “Slow-gate” will not break the $900 billion company. The company may have egg on its face now, but time will heal the damage to its brand. In the meantime, other companies can learn from Apple’s violation of user trust by noting the importance of transparency, and not shying away from explaining hard-to-grasp technical issues to consumers.

Michael Selvidge is AppLovin’s director of communications.

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