You weren’t imagining it, after all. After years of speculation and conspiracy theories, Apple disclosed this week that it really does throttle the processors of older iPhones at a certain point in their life cycle—albeit probably not for the nefarious reasons that cynics have suspected.
The “planned obsolescence” theory, advanced in such disparate venues as the New York Times and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, was that Apple intentionally slows down aging phones each time it releases a new device or operating system, so that people will be compelled to buy the newest thing. Snopes recently debunked the notion as “years-old clickbait,” and prominent Apple bloggers have long shot it down in exasperation.
The conspiracy theorists may have gotten Apple’s motivations wrong (although it’s hard to be certain that there’s no grain of truth in there). But we now know they had at least one thing right. And if Apple’s reputation takes a hit as a result, the company will have only itself to blame.
The breakthrough came in the form of an analysis by Geekbench, a tool for measuring the performance of computer processors. In a blog post on Monday, Primate Labs co-founder John Poole showed that Geekbench scores for older iPhones tended to deteriorate on newer operating systems. So, for instance, iPhone 6S users running iOS 10.2.0 all had roughly the same processor speed, but on iOS 10.2.1 and higher, many clocked significantly lower speeds. Meanwhile, iPhone 7 users’ processors all clustered around the same top speed on iOS 10.2.0, 10.2.1, and even 11.1.2—but once you get to 11.2.0, some iPhone 7s record lower scores, too. Read Poole’s full post for charts that illustrate his findings.
With the help of a Reddit user, Poole surmised what was going on. In the past year or two, there were reports of iPhones shutting down unexpectedly even when they seemed to have battery life remaining. That wasn’t entirely surprising, since lithium-ion batteries tend to struggle in cold conditions and degrade as they age. Apple publicly addressed the “unexpected shutdown” problem in February, rolling out a patch on operating systems 10.2.1 and above that it said would solve the issue in 80 percent of cases. Notably, it declined to explain how that patch worked.
Apple’s fix, we now know, was to limit the peak performance of a phone’s processor once the battery had deteriorated beyond a certain threshold. In Apple’s words, the effect is not to throttle or slow down phones with old batteries but to “smooth out” sudden peaks in power demand so that they won’t cause the battery to crash and the phone to shut down. Apple revealed this for the first time Wednesday, in response to Poole’s post.
Assuming Apple’s explanation is true—it does ring that way—this is far from planned obsolescence. On the contrary, it’s a way to address an otherwise vexing problem with older iPhones, thus potentially extending their useful life.
That doesn’t mean Apple should get a pass here, however. Poole puts his finger on the problem:
If the performance drop is due to the “sudden shutdown” fix, users will experience reduced performance without notification. Users expect either full performance, or reduced performance with a notification that their phone is in low-power mode. This fix creates a third, unexpected state. While this state is created to mask a deficiency in battery power, users may believe that the slow down is due to CPU performance, instead of battery performance, which is triggering an Apple introduced CPU slow-down. This fix will also cause users to think, “my phone is slow so I should replace it” not, “my phone is slow so I should replace its battery”. This will likely feed into the “planned obsolecense” narrative (sic).
The problem here, in short, is Apple’s secrecy. The company rarely speaks to the media or the public except at its own stage-managed launch events, even to address legitimate questions about its product. That creates the conditions for conspiracy theories to flourish. And in this case, Apple let its many advocates and apologists in the media and tech world confidently brush aside concerns about iPhone slowdown for close to a year before it was forced to admit that there was something to the allegations after all. That should undermine those boosters’ credibility as well as Apple’s. It might also dent a bit of the trust the company has built up with its users, whom it arguably deceived by omission, and whose concerns it acknowledged only once Geekbench caught it red-handed. (True to form, the company did not respond to my request for confirmation and comment Wednesday afternoon.)
Maybe this will be a wake-up call to Cupertino that sometimes transparency might serve it better than secrecy. On the other hand, prominent Apple bloggers around the web are already busy explaining why this is a nonissue and why Apple is the real victim here. “Basically, Apple is being painted in a damned if they do, damned if they don’t corner,” sympathizes Daring Fireball’s John Gruber. “Hot Take: Apple is doing the right thing here,” tweeted the Verge’s executive editor. (To be fair, even these Apple defenders did allow that Apple could have communicated better.)
More than anything, this episode simply underscores that iPhones really do degrade rather quickly over time for such an expensive product. Planned or not, the result is still obsolescence. It shouldn’t have taken so long, after so much obfuscation, for us to find out.