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The Sin Of Power Management

iPhone battery life gauge detail
photo by Paul Hudson

Only in America – and I mean that almost literally – would one of the world’s leading tech companies find itself the target of class-action lawsuits for committing the sin of providing customers with updated power management software for their aging devices.

Yet, as if to prove that sometimes the squeaky wheel gets greased whether it deserves it or not, the lawsuits or (much more likely) the attendant bad publicity brought on an unusual apology and a significant financial concession from the aforementioned well-intentioned corporation.

I refer to the absurdly hyped controversy over iPhone software updates that slow the device’s processor and related functions when its battery is weakened by age or cold conditions. Plaintiffs in Illinois and California filed class-action suits in late December, arguing that Apple had slowed their phones without their consent. More plaintiffs filed suit in New York state the following week.

The technology company did not deny pushing operating system updates to its iPhone 6, 6s, 7 and SE models after bloggers and Reddit users identified the change in older phones’ behavior. An Apple spokesperson said the company released the feature for the older models in 2016 and subsequently expanded it to the iPhone 7.

Apple had a perfectly logical explanation for the change, which is that it prevents devices from shutting down abruptly when the onboard chips demand more juice than the compromised battery can supply. Engineering is, in many respects, the management of a series of trade-offs. In this case, Apple’s engineers did exactly what they are supposed to do. Even without the risk of abrupt shutdowns, a portable device is not of much use if it sucks up power faster than users can keep it recharged. If the physical condition of a phone’s battery changes in the course of its life, as it inevitably does with today’s technology, then it is perfectly sensible to update the software to respond to those changes. In fact, it hardly makes any sense not to do so.

This is clear to everyone except frenzied media outlets and opportunistic lawyers who want to portray Apple’s actions as an attempt to force customers to update to newer phone models. The claim that this is a case of “planned obsolescence” verges on the ridiculous, because if a user replaces the old battery with a fresh one, the device slowdown is immediately reversed.

Even as it made the software change, Apple was prepared to provide a replacement battery to restore full functionality to any affected iPhone, including the venerable 6 and 6s models. The $79 price was not unreasonable considering the labor required to work inside an iPhone, with its tiny and delicate components. But in last week’s announcement, in which it apologized for not highlighting and explaining the software update, Apple slashed the price of battery replacements to just $29.

Third-party vendors can provide the same service too, sometimes faster than Apple, and sometimes for less money than the old price (though they are unlikely to be able to significantly beat the new one). Or you can buy a battery online and do it yourself, if you think you have the mechanical skill required. I’ve worked inside computers for decades, but this is a piece of surgery I have no desire to attempt.

Whichever option you choose, all of them are cheaper than buying a new phone. In the meantime, Apple’s solution will keep a phone from the random, abrupt shutdowns resulting from the inevitable fact that lithium-ion phone batteries lose capacity as they age, especially when they get cold or near the end of a charge. This is not for lack of trying on the behalf of consumer electronics companies, who would like nothing more than to discover a way to effectively extend battery life. For now, the best that companies like Apple can do is improve power management software and offer a means to replace aging batteries when necessary.

Through my firm, I own dozens of smartphones and other electronic devices, most of them from Apple. I’m pleased to know the company – which never charges me for an operating system update, in sharp contrast to Microsoft – is doing what it can to prolong the useful life of some of our older devices.

As for those class-action lawsuits, I have trouble deciding which look dumber: the complaints themselves, or the lawyers who bring them. Despite the logical shortcomings of the litigation, I’m going to go with the lawyers, who have decided to take on a company that is doing nothing wrong and that has $200 billion in cash reserves available to make sure nobody ever finds it worthwhile to bring such specious litigation against it in the future. In fact, last week’s announcement may even have been meant in part to discourage those lawyers, who claim to be seeking relief for the customers allegedly injured by Apple. Now that Apple has provided substantial relief itself, what are they suing for besides their own enrichment?

There are a few other countries that allow class actions in civil litigation, and a few that allow contingent fees for lawyers that bring such actions, but America stands almost alone in having an industry of lawyers who actively seek cases to bring against large corporations in hopes of securing not a judgment, but rather just a cash settlement in which the lawyers themselves often are the only ones to receive significant cash.

It works often enough to keep the tort bar in business, but I doubt it will work this time. I certainly hope it doesn’t. I carry an iPhone 7 in my pocket right now, and I want its power managed by engineers, not lawyers.

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