Apple, Lithium-Ion Batteries, and the Slowdown Conspiracy

I have few friends and family members that marvel at how I always seem to have the newest iPhone. That’s not actually true. I only get a new phone, usually on launch day, every two years, and I certainly didn’t get an iPhone X this year. I suspect that they think I’m always going to get a new phone because some of those friends keep their trusty iPhones around for a while. Case in point: I have a friend with an iPhone 5s, a phone released in 2013. Four years is a couple of epochs in the history of smartphones.

That same friend who carries a four-year old iPhone is constantly searching for a free power outlet to charge her phone or using a portable battery pack to keep it going throughout the day. She reports that the battery level will quickly go from 50% to 40% to 20% to dead in a short amount of time. She insists that she will buy a new phone soon so she can stop worrying about this. However, I insist that if she’s never replaced the battery inside her phone, her phone powers off because the battery is four years old and can’t hold a charge like it did when a year ago, much less like it did when it was new.

The lithium-ion batteries in our devices offer the best mass-produced, battery technology around, but it is often the first thing to fail on our devices. A lithium-ion battery will last between 500-1000 charge cycles. If you run down your battery every day and charge it at night, that is one charge cycle. Many of us do this multiple times per day. That means that we’re likely running our phone batteries through 500 charge cycles in a single year. Replacing a battery—something that costs between $40 and $80 and takes about an hour of time—will give the device a whole new life.

Earlier this month, Apple publicly admitted that it slows down the processor in older phones with aging batteries to prevent the sudden shutdowns that my friend—and many others—experience every day, especially in cold weather. The processor slow down, I suspect, is like what happens when a user turns on Power Save mode. Operations on the phone get slower but not so much so that the phone becomes unusable. In fact, I’ve seen many users keep their phones on Power Save mode almost all of the time, ostensibly to run their phones longer without needing to charge it throughout the day.

Conspiracy theorists believe that Apple slows down older iPhones to get people to buy a new iPhone. There are many reasons why this is not a credible theory, including:

  • it’s unlikely that Apple software engineers are adding code to slow down iPhones when they reach a certain age because it seems antithetical to what Apple as a company does.
  • a lot of these older phones are still for sale as new phones, including the 2015 iPhone 6s and presumably will still support for another two years.
  • if people feel their iPhones get prematurely slow, why would they buy another iPhone instead of ditching Apple altogether?

The irony of this conspiracy theory is that Apple slowing down the phones was an attempt to get people to use their phones longer, not to buy new ones. The slowdown was designed to stop this very process:

  1. Aging iPhone either suddenly shuts down or runs down in battery level, e.g., from 20% to dead, in a short amount of time.
  2. User gets frustrated and begins to consider buying a new phone.
  3. User buys a new phone.

Yes, this solves the battery problem, but if your got a flat tire on a bike or a dead car battery, you wouldn’t buy a new bike or a new car, would you?

Instead, if a user updated her iPhone 5s to 10.2.1 or iPhone 7 to 11.2, her phone with a depleted battery would slow down to maintain a charge longer and prevent those sudden shutdowns or rundowns. And given how most smartphone users under-utilize their phones, it’s likely this decrease in performance would go unnoticed. The benchmarking scores, which show a 50% decrease in performance, push the iPhones much harder than ordinary users do.

Anecdotally, I ran my iPhone battery down to 20% yesterday in less than six hours, which is likely the topic for another post. But during its last twenty percent charge, while in Power Save mode, the phone lasted for another three hours. I was still able to use the phone without it performing significantly slower.

It wouldn’t surprise me that people were using a perceived slowdown as a reason to buy a new phone, not because it actually was any slower but because they simply want a new phone. Or, they wanted to buy a new phone because, like a sell-by date on a packaged food item, they felt it had gone bad, even if it still passed the smell test and was still safe to eat.

Apple’s fault here was in not telling its users that this was how they fixed the sudden shutdown problem in iPhone 6s earlier this year by not showing the battery’s health and the number of charge cycles it has undergone in iOS. I hope the promised software update in 2018 will do just that: allow the user to determine whether their battery health is low and know that replacing the battery will bring the phone back to life.

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