Apple is right to slow down older iPhones, here's why

iPhone Battery
iPhone Battery (Image credit: Rene Ritchie / iMore)

Yesterday, February 7, Apple got slapped with a 25 million euro ($27 million) fine by France's Directorate General for Competition, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Prevention (DGCCRF).

In what is tantamount to a corporate smack on the wrist (Apple probably spends more than $27 million a year on toilet paper), French authorities concluded the following:

The DGCCRF has indeed shown that iPhone owners had not been informed that the updates of the iOS operating system (10.2.1 and 11.2) they installed were likely to slow down the operation of their device.

If you didn't know already, Apple slows down older iPhones. Intentionally. Back in the day, this was quite a big deal, so hopefully, it isn't news to you. But just in case, now you now.

This story was all the rage a couple of years back. Around the end of 2017, suspicions began to emerge that Apple was intentionally, and worse, secretly, slowing down iPhones with a performance management feature, designed to stop big spikes in performance from shutting off your iPhone unexpectedly, or worse, killing your battery. Apple later admitted that it had indeed introduced such a practice in iOS 10. It apologized and offered to replace out-of-warranty batteries for just $29.

Tech, like time, is an ever-flowing river. Everything gets older. With every passing day, new technologies and capabilities are revealed and created within the industry. The stuff that was already there starts to lag behind. This is normal, the same is true of the automobile industry, health care, sport and more.

When this story first broke out, I was surprised at how much everyone else seemed to be surprised that iPhones are not immune to aging. That with each passing year, as Apple improves iOS by adding more powerful and more extensive features, its older hardware doesn't function the way it once used to.

In the tech world, we are served by a unique combination, a synergy of hardware and software. It's a recipe that Apple prides itself on doing really well. The problem is that software can be changed every few days with tweaks to coding. When it comes to Apple and the iPhone, hardware updates only usually come once a year.

Lithium-ion batteries

One key aspect of user experience that Apple has to manage, is device longevity. Whilst Apple makes a new iPhone each year, not everyone buys it. In fact, many, many customers keep hold of phones for two, three, four years or more. That's why Apple's iOS updates still cover phones like the iPhone 5S, iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6s, phones that are more than six years old!

The key component in Apple's iPhone performance management is the lithium-ion battery. Take it from Apple:

Your iPhone is designed to deliver an experience that is simple and easy to use. This is only possible through a combination of advanced technologies and sophisticated engineering. One important technology area is battery and performance. Batteries are a complex technology, and a number of variables contribute to battery performance and related iPhone performance. All rechargeable batteries are consumables and have a limited lifespan – eventually their capacity and performance decline so that they need to be replaced. Battery aging can contribute to changes in iPhone performance. We created this information for those who would like to learn more.

Each time you charge your phone to 100%, the lifespan of the battery decreases. It takes months for this to become noticeable, but it does happen. Lithium-ion batteries are complicated. Imagine two rooms, one full of people, the other empty. As your iPhone battery uses up charge, these people (electrons) move from one room to the other, until the second room is full and the first is empty. The process of recharging the battery sends all of these people back to the first room, and the process starts over. Each time this happens, the second room gets ever so slightly smaller, and slightly harder to access. This is basically what happens to your iPhone's battery.

So why does Apple slow down iPhones?

This battery aging affects your iPhone's performance. Over time your iPhone becomes less powerful, the battery doesn't last as long, and it can't quite cope with peak performance the way it once did. This regression is amplified by the fact that iOS software is always advancing in the other direction, increasing its power demands and capabilities. The biggest symptom of this issue is unexpected shutdowns. One moment your old iPhone is chugging along with 10, 15, 20, maybe even 30% battery. The next, WHAM, your iPhone switches off... Oh, and surprise, there's no battery left.

No doubt, many of you probably remember the days before iOS 10.2, when that actually used to happen. Do you miss those days? Yeah, me neither.

Wait, so why did everyone get so angry?

Because they didn't tell us. Maybe... a lot of people were genuinely upset that their iPhone was being intentionally slowed down. As many people were angry that Apple did this seemingly in secret, or that at the very least, it didn't announce it.

As far as I'm concerned, only one of these angers is righteous.

Yes, the performance management aspect of iOS does slow down your iPhone slightly. Listed effects as stated by Apple are as follows:

  • Longer app launch times
  • Lower frame rates while scrolling
  • Backlight dimming (which can be overridden in Control Centre)
  • Lower speaker volume by up to -3 dB
  • Gradual frame-rate reductions in some apps
  • During the most extreme cases, the camera flash will be disabled as visible in the camera UI
  • Apps refreshing in the background may require reloading upon launch

But compared to the prospect of having your iPhone randomly shut off in the middle of an important task, or leaving you without a working mode of contact, these are all rather trivial in my opinion. Do you really want to argue, that for instance, having your iPhone's frame rate remain constant whilst scrolling is more important than having your iPhone not randomly conk out, not to reawaken until charged?

As most people seem to note, the real "crime" here was that Apple kept its performance management quiet. Even the most recent French ruling that started this piece stated: "The DGCCRF has indeed shown that iPhone owners had not been informed that the updates of the iOS operating system (10.2.1 and 11.2) they installed were likely to slow down the operation of their device."

Damned if you do, damned if you don't

Of course, as mentioned, there was a lot of outcry at the time over the fact that Apple was intentionally slowing down iPhones, not just that they had kept it on DL.

This leads me to believe that Apple really couldn't have won in this situation. Yes, Apple is reaping the cost of not telling people in the form of fines from various governments, and by having to absorb the cost of a subsidized battery replacement program.

But do you really think that people would have been understanding if Apple had been forthcoming about its plans? This is Apple after all. And people love to hate Apple. Can you imagine the headlines? 'Apple announces it will intentionally slow down older iPhones' - 'Apple forces customers to upgrade by ruining their old devices'. Or worse, imagine if Apple had taken no action, and left us to our own highly unstable devices - 'Negligent Apple lets older phones randomly shut off' - 'Why hasn't Apple issued an update to patch iPhone shutdowns?'.

As a culture, we tend not to approach these sorts of things rationally. The way I see it, Apple could have chosen not to address this issue, leaving users in the pre-iOS 10 wilderness. Apple absolutely made the right decision to address this issue. Its performance management feature in iOS allows more people to use more iPhones for longer than they might have been able to otherwise, offset by slightly diminished performance.

Yes, perhaps Apple could have taken the decision to be more forthcoming about its plans to enable performance management in iOS. It could have told the world that it was about to intentionally slow down its older iPhones. But would the world have been understanding about it? I think not.

Stephen Warwick
News Editor

Stephen Warwick has written about Apple for five years at iMore and previously elsewhere. He covers all of iMore's latest breaking news regarding all of Apple's products and services, both hardware and software. Stephen has interviewed industry experts in a range of fields including finance, litigation, security, and more. He also specializes in curating and reviewing audio hardware and has experience beyond journalism in sound engineering, production, and design.

Before becoming a writer Stephen studied Ancient History at University and also worked at Apple for more than two years. Stephen is also a host on the iMore show, a weekly podcast recorded live that discusses the latest in breaking Apple news, as well as featuring fun trivia about all things Apple. Follow him on Twitter @stephenwarwick9