How Apple slows down old iPhones

Under pressure, Apple calls its older device performance limit a ‘feature’

Apple, iPhone, iPad, iOS, device speed, performance, obsolescence
Warren R.M. Stuart (CC BY 2.0)

It’s embarrassing when you are proved wrong. I’ve argued that Apple does not reduce the performance of older iPhones, but it turns out I’m wrong. According to Apple.

Did you know about this new feature?

Here’s Apple’s statement on the matter, issued as a consequence of a rowdy discussion on Reddit, and important analysis by developer, John Poole:

“Our goal is to deliver the best experience for customers, which includes overall performance and prolonging the life of their devices. Lithium-ion batteries become less capable of supplying peak current demands when in cold conditions, have a low battery charge as they age over time, which can result in the device unexpectedly shutting down to protect its electronic components. 

“Last year we released a feature for iPhone 6, iPhone 6s and iPhone SE to smooth out the instantaneous peaks only when needed to prevent the device from unexpectedly shutting down during these conditions. We’ve now extended that feature to iPhone 7 with iOS 11.2, and plan to add support for other products in the future.”

Slowing down iPhones for your protection ...

Essentially, Apple argues that it has been throttling the performance of its older devices as a way to provide a better overall user experience.

The argument is that older batteries can become less capable of supplying peak performance power, which means the devices will sometimes switch themselves off to prevent damaging internal components. There’s also a risk when using devices in very hot or very cold weather.

Apple’s argument makes some sense.

You don’t want to damage your device, nor do you want to damage internal components, as Apple says can happen if you drive an older device beyond peak performance.

What the software does is limit those peaks of processor power in order to prevent potentially damaging device shut downs. The power management caps those peaks and/or spreads the requested activity across more cycles. As a user, this shouldn’t make much difference.

All the same, this feature isn’t something I can easily imagine Apple’s Tim Cook announcing during an iOS launch. Though that may now change as the company moves to try to better explain itself. As it should.

Transparency matters

The problem is that the company failed to be transparent until someone figured out what was going on. Such lack of transparency always has consequences: People cannot help but begin to wonder what other things the company might be being opaque about. Its international taxation status, perhaps? Or that problem that wiped iTunes downloads during a software upgrade? The resources it provides to its own software fault checking departments? And should it not work a lot harder to ensure battery replacement is affordable and available to every iPhone user who may want to keep their devices working at peak performance?

Apple surely understands that its successful transition from failing computer maker to the world’s largest corporation mean it must endure much deeper scrutiny.

Such investigation is in the public interest, but for every writer like me who essentially believes in Apple as a force for good, there are many more who are skeptical of its "leave a better planet" aim. What does “better” mean? What do good or evil mean, come to that? Do such value judgements really depend on which pair of small hands are tapping the Twitter button, or do they represent universal truths?

Obsolescence as a Service

Buried within these questions and much of the coverage is that by describing this performance throttling as a feature, Apple seems to be positioning this throttling as something I just can't prevent myself feeling is like some form of obsolescence as a service (OaaS). I’m not convinced even General Motors achieved that.

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