Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

French Competition Bureau Fines Apple €25 Million for Not Communicating Slowing Effects of Battery-Preserving iOS Update

In December 2017, Apple acknowledged that an iOS update introduced a feature which prevented iPhones with degraded batteries from stability problems caused by CPU spikes. The peak performance of CPUs was reduced in iPhones with poor battery capacity.

Apple failed to communicate any of this to users; it only issued statements to the press after they reported on a Reddit post explaining that a fresh battery improved an iPhone’s performance. At the time, I wrote that this was a needless betrayal of trust which made a reasonable engineering decision look nefarious, and gave credence to conspiracy theories that the company intentionally slows down older devices to encourage users to purchase new devices.

This can be seen in the way the French government responded, according to an un-bylined BBC report from January 2018:

French prosecutors have launched a probe over allegations of “planned obsolescence” in Apple’s iPhone.

Under French law it is a crime to intentionally shorten lifespan of a product with the aim of making customers replace it.

[…]

It follows a legal complaint filed in December by pro-consumer group Stop Planned Obsolescence (Hop).

Hop said France was the third country to investigate Apple after Israel and the US, but the only one in which the alleged offence was a crime. Penalties could include up to 5% of annual turnover or even a jail term.

Romain Dillet, TechCrunch:

France’s competition watchdog DGCCRF announced earlier today that Apple will pay a $27.4 million (€25 million) fine due to an iOS update that capped performance of aging devices. The company will also have to display a statement on its website for a month.

I don’t know — or, frankly, care — if €25 million is a fine that is too small, too big, or not worth issuing at all. What I do know is that it is ridiculous to defend Apple’s decision not to explain this to users at the time.

Stephen Warwick, iMore:

But do you really think that people would have been understanding if Apple had been forthcoming about its plans? This is Apple after all. And people love to hate Apple. Can you imagine the headlines? ‘Apple announces it will intentionally slow down older iPhones‘ – ‘Apple forces customers to upgrade by ruining their old devices‘. Or worse, imagine if Apple had taken no action, and left us to our own highly unstable devices – ‘Negligent Apple lets older phones randomly shut off‘ – ‘Why hasn’t Apple issued an update to patch iPhone shutdowns?‘.

Of course it would not have been easy for Apple to explain why this decision made sense — Warwick alone spent about a thousand words retelling this saga. But it would have been right, and avoided accusations that the company was being underhanded and sneaky.

Instead of getting those make-believe headlines, we got very real headlines like “Apple: Yes, We’re Slowing Down Older iPhones”, “Apple Admits It Deliberately Slows Down iPhones as They Get Older”, and “Apple Really Does Slow Down Some Older iPhones”.

Yes, perhaps Apple could have taken the decision to be more forthcoming about its plans to enable performance management in iOS. It could have told the world that it was about to intentionally slow down its older iPhones. But would the world have been understanding about it? I think not.

In addition to the above headlines and this week’s French penalty, two U.S. government agencies investigated Apple for securities law violations, users in several states sued the company, and regulators around the world — including in South Korea, China, and Italy — assessed whether the company’s lack of communication violated any local laws.

That is the level of understanding the world had because Apple did not tell users that they should replace their battery to improve their iPhone’s performance. Instead of a difficult week for its PR team, trying to explain an engineering decision, they reinforced a dumb conspiracy theory. Was all that worth it?

To be clear, there’s no indication that this wasn’t publicized at the time to avoid poor PR; that’s something Warwick implied. If anything, this seems like an example of stupidity, not malice. But this was an indefensible mistake by Apple. There’s no reason to pretend otherwise.