MJLST Staffer, Alex Eschenroeder
While innovative tech companies typically receive widespread attention for increasing the speed and performance of a given device, Apple Inc. has received attention in the past few weeks for exactly the opposite reason. Apple’s actions have caught the attention of consumers and consumer advocates around the world, and recently, they have caught the attention of the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) as well.
The action at issue is Apple’s intentional throttling, or slowing down, of iPhone performance. Apple apologized for its intentional throttling on December 28, 2017, in reaction to building pressure from “users and tech analysts” who noticed iPhone slowdowns. In its apology message, Apple focused on the risk of unexpected phone shutdowns resulting from the fact that “[a] chemically aged battery also becomes less capable of delivering peak energy loads, especially in a low state of charge.” Apple asserted that it addressed this risk by delivering an iOS (iPhone operating system) update that “dynamically manages the maximum performance of some system components when needed to prevent a shutdown.” In addition to providing its explanation behind the throttling in its message, Apple announced a fifty dollar discount for iPhone battery replacements. However, replacement availability has been limited, and the discount has not stopped investigations and inquiries from multiple parties.
Shortly after Apple’s admission, consumer and watchdog groups in France, Italy, and China, submitted questions to Apple. The French consumer group, “Stop Programmed Obsolescence,” filed a complaint in December alleging “that Apple pressures customers to buy new phones by timing the release of new models with operating system upgrades that cause older ones to perform less well.” This complaint sparked an investigation by the Paris prosecutor’s office. Another source of questioning has been from within the US Senate, as South Dakota Senator John Thune wrote a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook that “pressed Apple for answers to a series of questions about how the company decided to throttle back iPhone processing performance in phones with older batteries.”
In addition to these sources of pressure, the latest major development is that the SEC and DOJ have initiated their own probes. Both the SEC and the DOJ declined to comment about their investigations. Further, “Apple acknowledged in a statement that it is responding to questions from some government agencies, though it declined to disclose which agencies or any details regarding the questions.” Thus, very little is known at this point about the substance of the investigations. Current speculation includes that, in this type of case, “the SEC could try to fault a public company for failing to make timely disclosures about material information that would affect the stock price.”
While a more superficial investigation is possible, it would likely leave critical questions unaddressed. Some questions I would like to vent to Apple are as follows: If Apple’s battery issues cause peak energy load delivery problems primarily in a low state of charge, why does the dynamic management system coded into iOS slow down app launch times even at or near full charge? If the iOS update manages max performance of system components when needed to prevent a shutdown, does that mean a phone that takes longer to launch any given app on any given launch is constantly at risk for shutting down? What would it mean when Apple releases code to deactivate throttling and an iPhone with previously slow app launch times doesn’t turn off immediately? How many other devices does Apple throttling apply to, and when might Apple admit to them? Looking at you, Apple Watch.
These questions are not expertly devised, but they represent a reality that Apple will have to grapple with in the coming months: when so many people use your product frequently, there are mountains of user experiences that could be referenced to throw any “explanation” into question. These experiences may help to debunk any likely stories that vary significantly from the truth.