Apple and the battery disaster

By now, everyone has heard about Apple throttling phones with older batteries to prevent them from shutting off unexpectedly. Some of the stories are bad, and I wish I could say I didn’t understand why. While “confirmed a longtime conspiracy theory” is extremely misleading, as this power management strategy was introduced in iOS 10.2.1, less than a year ago, I understand how bad this looks. Where Apple really dropped the ball here was in not being more transparent and upfront about what was happening on the phone. But as John Gruber wrote, this is a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” problem. Lithium-ion batteries degrade over time. This is not an Apple thing, it’s a lithium-ion technology thing and a fact of life as long as that’s what’s in our batteries.

Before they introduced the power management technique, phones were shutting off spontaneously when there was a spike in usage that drew too much power from the battery. You could have 60% battery left, and your phone would suddenly use too much CPU for something, and boom, it would shut off. Apple introduced something to prevent the CPU from spiking in this way. They made a tradeoff. Some people will disagree with it, and I can understand that. But when your battery degrades to that point, either you will experience random shutdowns, or your phone will get slower (occasionally, not continuously) to prevent them. Apple chose the latter. I might have too.

But Apple’s responsibility was to communicate this to the user somehow. Throw up a message on screen when your battery health falls to a certain point, or when the CPU is being throttled more than 20% of the time. I don’t know, I’m not a UX designer. But people needed to be told “hey, your battery is failing, and we made a compromise so your phone doesn’t shut down, you can either live with it or replace the battery at which point your phone will be back to normal.” The mistake wasn’t in introducing the fix, it was in not being clear about what was happening. If you think this is egregious enough to lambast or abandon Apple, that’s fair enough.

What sucks is that this was a legitimate technology problem that they tried to solve in an understandable way (even though some may disagree with it), but because of a lack of transparency and good messaging before it blew up in headlines, this is going to tarnish Apple’s reputation for years. It doesn’t really matter the facts or the explanation at this point. Perception is king, and they won’t be able to shake this one. I understand how this decision was made, how it was implemented, and why it didn’t seem like that big of a deal. They were trying to solve a real problem for people whose phones were shutting down. But none of that matters, because now it’s blown up after the fact, and nobody really cares about the real story. They’re just going to shout “planned obsolescence” and “I’ve been saying this from the beginning” and “fuck Apple.”

Apple didn’t really do anything wrong except not explain it at the beginning, but I understand why they didn’t think that was necessary. It’s an engineering problem and it was solved by engineers. It probably wasn’t even communicated far enough up the chain for anybody to realize “hey, this could be a PR disaster.” Apple has been historically bad at communication sometimes. In a lot of ways, Apple is a small company that grew into a big company without learning how to be a big company. I get the impression that there’s still a lot happening within Apple where it’s a case of the right hand not knowing what the left is doing. But I can’t imagine a worse disaster than this one. This has been a running conspiracy theory for years, and to be caught actually doing it, even though it’s only within the past year (well after the conspiracy theory began) and for legitimate technical reasons, is a black eye that I don’t know if they’ll ever recover from. There are going to be a lot of people who will never care about the details of the story and are never going to give it a second thought and are just going to write off Apple for good now because they’re greedy soulless shills who intentionally slow down old phones purely because they want you to buy the new one. I don’t know how they ever subvert that narrative now. Even complete transparency and an apology and a decision to roll back the change and let people go back to having random shutdowns won’t do much to rebuild trust at this point.

And, selfishly, this sucks for me as the resident Apple guy. Everybody’s going to run to me and say “SEE?! I TOLD YOU!” and I’ll try to explain the facts for them and all it will do is paint me as more of an Apple apologist and damage my credibility, even though I’m not saying what they did was right or wrong. Even explaining the facts will be seen as mindlessly defending Apple at this point.

So yes, this is bad. As soon as the news started circulating, I already knew the story, more or less, (and it’s really not that interesting a story, if you look at it objectively) but I knew the whole thing was going to spin so far out of control that weathering the shitstorm would be virtually impossible. This was a minor, well-intentioned mistake in the grand scheme of things. A questionable but reasonable engineering decision combined with a lack of PR awareness. But the effects could destroy Apple’s reputation permanently. I hope I’m being hyperbolic about that, but with the current climate of fake news and people failing to engage with fact, I fear that I’m not.