SAN FRANCISCO (NYTIMES) - For years, some consumers have suspected Apple of a nefarious plot: The company, they said, was slowing down their older iPhones to get them to buy new ones.
Now, many of them feel vindicated.
In a statement on Wednesday (Dec 20), Apple said that it had released a "feature" that occasionally reduces processing power on older devices to prevent them from unexpectedly shutting down.
The reduction, Apple said, was necessary because older batteries could otherwise periodically overload. The statement came after reports on Reddit and Geekbench were picked up by technology news sites.
Some users saw the announcement as proof that the company had engaged in "planned obsolescence," a scheme to degrade the old devices to force users to upgrade.
Others felt betrayed. And still others were simply confused.
Here is a Q&A with Brian X. Chen, the lead consumer technology writer for The New York Times, about what the announcement really means.
Q: Can you translate? Is Apple saying that it intentionally slows down older iPhones as new ones are released?
A: What Apple is acknowledging is a power management technique in which the iPhone scales back processing power to keep the device running for longer when its battery health is low. Lithium ion batteries have a limited number of charge "cycles" before they can no longer be recharged properly. Apple's website says the battery loses about 20 per cent of its original capacity after 500 charge cycles.
In other words, if your iPhone is beginning to run out of battery capacity, these slowdowns might kick in to keep it running for longer or prevent it from shutting down unexpectedly.
Apple is not admitting to planned obsolescence. If Apple explicitly said that they injected code into older iPhones to slow them down because new ones came out, that would be admission. All it is admitting to now is trying to keep the old iPhones running for longer.
Q: Does this change your conclusion last month that this is not a conspiracy to force users to buy new phones?
A: The premise of my previous column was that the vast majority of slowdown problems are fixable without buying a new phone. That point stands, and now we have even more information supporting that premise: a battery replacement also helps.
Q: How many users does this affect?
A: Apple has said the power management technique works on iPhone 6, 6S, SE and 7.
Q: What else could be slowing the older phones down?
A: Often, a buggy operating system upgrade can cause glitches when running apps. Another common cause is having little available device storage. Smartphones rely on flash storage, which keeps data in the cells of semiconductor chips. When stored, that data is scattered across the drive. So when you call it up by opening an app or a document, you are retrieving it from multiple parts of the drive. If lots of space is occupied, the data gets crowded and the device may feel sluggish.
Q: Some users say that installing bigger batteries seems to fix the problem. Does that make sense? What else can users do to, short of buying new phones?
A: I would recommend paying a third-party repair shop to replace the aged battery with a fresh one. This will cost between US$20 and US$70, depending on where you live and which iPhone you own. Repair shops will probably recommend against installing a battery that has a larger capacity than the original, as there can be risks of damage.
The other solutions I wrote about in my last column included doing a clean install of the operating system and freeing up storage on the device. There is a scenario where you absolutely can't get around buying a new phone: App and game makers design their software to work better on newer, faster devices. So if you have an older smartphone and you want a brand-new game with heavy graphics to work as well as it possibly could, you'll want a new phone.
Q: Is this unusual? Do other smartphone makers - or, more broadly, electronics companies - do this, too?
A: I don't find the power management technique that surprising or unusual. You have probably noticed that when your smartphone (iPhone or Android) is running out of battery, like when there is less than 10 per cent, the device begins to run more slowly. That is partly to keep it running for longer.
Q: Could Apple have avoided this by, say, using a different type of battery?
A: We all dream about the day that the tech industry will adopt a longer-lasting, smarter battery than lithium ion. But battery technologies have to pass rigorous safety testing - if something goes wrong, they are miniature bombs. (You saw what happened with Samsung's Galaxy Note 7.) Lithium ion, though flawed, is still the safest and most easily reproducible battery technology on the market.
Q: Apple is known for its masterful marketing. Do you think it has handled this controversy well?
A: No, it could have avoided controversy by being more transparent to begin with. It could have notified people that a power management mode was kicking in to keep their iPhones running for longer because their batteries are running out of juice. That would also inform people that they should be getting their batteries replaced. Because Apple was not transparent, it's natural for people to suspect it of deliberately crippling their devices to get them to buy new ones.
This episode is a good reminder that even digital devices need maintenance. Many people believe that because gadgets lack moving parts, they should keep working as intended. But we still need to take care of them.
Last year, I wrote a column about maintaining our devices, which included tips like replacing aging batteries, freeing up storage and, in the case of desktop computers, removing the cover and blowing out dust.