iPhone Battery: Slow Down or Die?

The conspiracy theory that Apple has been slowing down older iPhone models has been around for quite some time. So far, however, users that were pointing out how Apple was willingly handicapping their devices to force them to upgrade had no facts to back up their claims.

Earlier this week, Geekbench developer John Poole published a post outlining how iOS  10.2.1 and 11.2.0 introduced the ability to slow down the processor speed to preserve battery performance. On Thursday, Apple confirmed that, since last year, they have added a throttling feature to iPhone 6, iPhone 6s and iPhone SE. Here is the statement that Apple made available to the press:

“ 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 or 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”.

While I am sure those users who have been crying wolf feel vindicated, I think it is important to look at the reasons behind Apple’s decision as it is certainly not to force upgrades.

Here is how I break it down:

  • iOS updates are installed in over 70% of devices within the first couple of months of availability. This means that a software that has been designed for the latest hardware available gets to run also on devices that are as old as 4 or 5 years. The ability to renew your device through software is exactly why iPhone owners see their phone choice as a good investment and hold on to it.
  • In a recent study we ran across 1200 US consumers, we asked about motivations driving upgrade and found that the phone being old and slow is the biggest driver with Android phones. When it comes to iPhones “old and slow” comes only third.

  • While not specifically asking about what role battery life plays with upgrades we did ask how it influences purchase decision and came to see that, once again battery life is more of a driver for Android users than iPhone users. This leads me to believe that, by and large, iPhone users are not concerned with their battery performance.

  • The big argument many are making is that Apple should have been transparent about this feature. Some even argue that Apple should leave it to the consumer to decide what they want.
  • I do agree that more transparency could have helped users feel less blindsided. But when it comes to the decision Apple made to handle the issue I believe they made the right call.
  • The lack of concern for battery performance our study highlights would be quite different if older iPhones just died throughout the day. And this is the choice Apple made: let the phone just run at full speed and kill the prematurely aged batteries or slow down the phone so the battery would last longer. I am sure if consumers were posed that question they would mostly opt for the latter option.
  • It is also important to point out that Apple’s new feature does not impact all the units of the models mentioned in their statement. The throttling only kicks in if your phone has an inefficient battery. This means that if your phone has not been recharged when the battery was still mostly full, was not left under charge after reaching 100% or was exposed to extreme cold or hot temperature chances are you will not be impacted it.
  • Another argument some people are making is that Apple could be more proactive in offering battery replacements either in the stores or through kits consumers could buy. This is because iPhone 6 owners have shown that replacing the battery on their sluggish device brought them back to full performance. Such option is not as easy as it sounds. I am not sure how realistic the scenario of consumers opening up their iPhone to swap out their battery really is. As far as Apple offering battery replacement as a service, beyond what they currently do for defective batteries, would be a little complicated as I assume it would have implications for the warranty. Users might still opt to have their battery replaced by a third party knowing that this option does impact their warranty.
  • I am sure that performance was not the only reason that drove Apple to this choice. Safety must have played a big role in the implementation of this software feature. also leaving consumers to make a choice by flipping a switch also was not really an option. If Samsung’s Note 7 recall taught us something is that consumers continue to use their phone even when their own security is at risk.
  • If slowing down performance was used as a purchase driver Apple would not limit this feature to non-Plus models. iPhone Plus models benefit from a larger battery which could mitigate some of the issues.
  • The conspiracy theorists, not convinced by my point, I am sure would argue that Apple should design a software that does not impact a phone within a couple of years. But, of course, if they did that would these same critics not argue that Apple is not keeping up with the pace of innovation?
  • Apple has already said that this feature might be extended to future products, yet, as Apple takes more control over CPU and GPU design, it will be interesting to see if battery deterioration could be prevented especially given we now know Apple will be designing its own power management controller.
  • As always, when something happens in the smartphone market, comparisons are made, so in this case, some are wondering why this is not a need for Android phones. While we do not know if any Android vendor is adopting similar techniques we do know Android phones do not see the same software update success that Apple’s iPhones have. This difference is due to both consumers not upgrading as well as the software not being made available to older models. Hence the impact new software will have on old hardware and batteries is more limited.




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Carolina Milanesi

Carolina is a Principal Analyst at Creative Strategies, Inc, a market intelligence and strategy consulting firm based in Silicon Valley and recognized as one of the premier sources of quantitative and qualitative research and insights in tech. At Creative Strategies, Carolina focuses on consumer tech across the board. From hardware to services, she analyzes today to help predict and shape tomorrow. In her prior role as Chief of Research at Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, she drove thought leadership research by marrying her deep understanding of global market dynamics with the wealth of data coming from ComTech’s longitudinal studies on smartphones and tablets. Prior to her ComTech role, Carolina spent 14 years at Gartner, most recently as their Consumer Devices Research VP and Agenda Manager. In this role, she led the forecast and market share teams on smartphones, tablets, and PCs. She spent most of her time advising clients from VC firms, to technology providers, to traditional enterprise clients. Carolina is often quoted as an industry expert and commentator in publications such as The Financial Times, Bloomberg, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. She regularly appears on BBC, Bloomberg TV, Fox, NBC News and other networks. Her Twitter account was recently listed in the “101 accounts to follow to make Twitter more interesting” by Wired Italy.

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