iPhone BatteryGate is being settled but... why did it even start?

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

Apple has tentatively agreed to settle the iPhone BatteryGate class-action lawsuit in the U.S. to the tune of $500 million dollars. This follows a €25 million fine last month.

So, how did this all go so wrong for Apple… and why?

Cause not effect

BatteryGate has always been… complicated. Far more complicated than something like AntennaGate. With AntennaGate on the iPhone 4, you put your finger on the bottom left of the band, bridging and detuning the antennas, it would impede the signal. Apple mitigated it by giving out free bumpers and fixed it in the Verizon iPhone 4, and the iPhone 4s and future iPhone antennas for everyone.

With BatteryGate, things started off… weird. And got weirder.

Back in late 2016, people started complaining about their iPhones 6 and 6s shutting down unexpectedly and, worse, having to be connected to a power cable to boot back up again.

Apple said it was only happening to a small percentage of customers but at iPhone scale, even a small percentage is a lot of people.

Especially in this case, because if the iPhone can't be rebooted without being plugged in, you risk hella inconveniencing those people, the ones out and about, away from their cables and outlets, not able to use their iPhones, especially in the case of an emergency.

To figure out what was going on, Apple's engineers did something I still think is really clever — they added diagnostics into the next iOS update, collected all the shutdown data they could, and figured out exactly what was going on.

And, it turned out, it was the battery. If a particularly intensive task, like a complex photo filter, caused a significant spike in processor activity, it also caused a spike in power draw. In most cases, that was fine.

But, if the battery health was bad, if it had been through an unusual amount of charge cycles or damaged in some way or exposed to a lot of heat, it couldn't meet the power demand. And, so, it would brown out, shut down, just to protect itself.

Once Apple's engineers understood what was happening, they injected a solution into the next iOS update.

  • First, they added the ability for the iPhone to recover and reboot from a brownout without having to be plugged in again. Pretty much eliminating the risk of anyone being left without a functioning iPhone.
  • Second, they added a Mac-style service notice in Settings to warn about poor battery health.
  • Third, they expanded performance management — throttling — to prevent brownouts from occurring to begin with.

Now, throttling has become something of a dirty, rage-inducing word online thanks to things like BatteryGate and a bug in the 2017 MacBook Pro. But, it's also something that happens to pretty much every processor, all the time. Especially in more constrained environments, and especially, especially in phones.

Power generates heat. Heat is bad for chips. Regulating power and heat takes the edge off that badness.

Why wasn't the iPad affected? iPads have much bigger batteries that tended not to see as much abuse and so could happily keep meeting power demand spikes without issue.

Why didn't this happen with other phones? I don't know that it didn't. But, in general, other chips in other phones didn't used to be anywhere as powerful. They mostly came from merchant silicon vendors that were content to let technologies sit on the shelf for years to better recoup their R&D spend.

Apple doesn't have profit and loss on chips. Apple makes its money on the whole device. So, chips became a differentiator for Apple and it was happy to let its silicon engineers run. Race. Sprint.

Eventually, the other chipmakers had to follow. Even then, some other phones had bigger batteries, which provided more of a buffer, but, frankly, some of them were also throttled much harder at launch, maybe for the same reasons, but whitelisted things like benchmarks so people couldn't tell, not until they got caught, which was a whole different gate.

Anyway, Apple's fix was to more carefully, conservatively manage performance, or to throttle harder. To choose reliability over speed.

Apple gave me and of other outlets a statement about it back when the fix was pushed out as part of iOS 10.2.1 on February 23, 2017:

"With iOS 10.2.1, Apple made improvements to reduce occurrences of unexpected shutdowns that a small number of users were experiencing with their iPhone," Apple told iMore. "iOS 10.2.1 already has over 50% of active iOS devices upgraded and the diagnostic data we've received from upgraders shows that for this small percentage of users experiencing the issue, we're seeing a more than 80% reduction in iPhone 6s and over 70% reduction on iPhone 6 of devices unexpectedly shutting down."We also added the ability for the phone to restart without needing to connect to power, if a user still encounters an unexpected shutdown. It is important to note that these unexpected shutdowns are not a safety issue, but we understand it can be an inconvenience and wanted to fix the issue as quickly as possible. If a customer has any issues with their device they can contact AppleCare."

But, wicked obviously in hindsight, it was not.

Actions and consequences

On December 9, 2017, TechFire on Reddit posted that, after their iPhone 6s was very slow for weeks, getting the battery changed brought it right back up to speed again:

My iPhone 6S has been very slow these past few weeks, and even after updating multiple times, it was still slow. Couldn't figure out why, but just thought that iOS 11 was still awful to me. Then I used my brother's iPhone 6 Plus and his was... faster than mine? This is when I knew something was wrong. So, I did some research, and decided to replace my battery. Wear level was somewhere around 20% on my old battery. I did a Geekbench score, and found I was getting 1466 Single and 2512 Multi. This did not change wether I had low power mode on or off. After changing my battery, I did another test to check if it was just a placebo. Nope. 2526 Single and 4456 Multi. From what I can tell, Apple slows down phones when their battery gets too low, so you can still have a full days charge.

Now, remember when I said cause and effect on AntennaGate was at least direct? Touch antenna, kill antenna? This was not that. Most people don't see slowness and think battery. They think operating system, the latest update, stuff like that.

What was supposed to have happened was that only those power spikes that were shutting down iPhone were throttled down. That would have affected only the most demanding tasks, like photo filters, for only that small percentage of customers.

Apple gave me and other outlets another statement saying exactly that, and that they thought it was working well enough that they were going to extend it to the iPhone 7 with iOS 11.2.

"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."

Instead, though, it looked like a far wider range of tasks were being throttled and for a far, far greater percentage of people.

On December 22, on the old podcast version of this column, I saw down with John Poole of Geekbench, who's testing had helped discover the problem, industry analysts Ben Bajarin and Carl Howe, and Jerry Hildenbrand, resident super-engineer at Android Central, to dive much deeper into what was happening and why.

My feeling, and I said this from pretty much the beginning of the gate, was that it would have been smarter for Apple to let iPhones keep on functioning as they always had then, if an when they browned out, when they restarted, pop up a warning saying battery health was compromised, please contact AppleCare, and a notice or consent button saying they were going to more aggressively manage performance until it was seen by AppleCare.

Not only would that have saved Apple from the gate, it would have been a far better way to inform and empower customers from the get go.

As it was, as it so typically is, silence fills with conspiracy — that Apple was just slowing down phones to try and trick people into upgrading earlier. Built-in obsolescence.

But the conspiracy is actually very different and goes much much deeper. Here, come closer.

Apple doesn't just want people to buy a lot of iPhones. Apple wants there to be a lot iPhones. That's why the build quality is so high, so they won't fall apart as fast. Why the processors are so powerful, so there'll be headroom enough not just to run this year's software, but software for the next 4 or 5 years. And why every few software updates are performance updates, to make older phones run better so they'll last longer.

Apple wants you to be so happy with your current iPhone, when you're ready for your next phone, it's just a no brainer you'll get another iPhone. Not, like, ugh, this phone is so fake slow, I'm going to buy a Samsung P30 Pixel instead! And they want you to hand down, sell, or trade-in your previous iPhone, so it stays out in the world, totally still useable, so whoever is still using it keeps buying apps, subscribing to Apple Music or Arcade or TV+ or whatever.

It's why Apple very specifically doesn't say how many new iPhones they sell every year, but how many total devices they have on the market. It's not about just replacing one phone with another. It's about growing the size of the platform. And any iPhone that ages out, for any reason, doesn't grow the size of the platform.

At the end of 2017, Apple issued an apology for its handling of iPhone performance management:

We've been hearing feedback from our customers about the way we handle performance for iPhones with older batteries and how we have communicated that process. We know that some of you feel Apple has let you down. We apologize. There's been a lot of misunderstanding about this issue, so we would like to clarify and let you know about some changes we're making.

First and foremost, we have never — and would never — do anything to intentionally shorten the life of any Apple product, or degrade the user experience to drive customer upgrades. Our goal has always been to create products that our customers love, and making iPhones last as long as possible is an important part of that.

In early 2018, Apple also added that the update would include a way to disable performance management entirely between brownouts if anyone really wanted to.

The update went into beta on January 31, 2018 and launched as part of iOS 11.3 at on March 28, 2018.

In October of 2018, Apple added the iPhone 8 and iPhone X to the performance management system as part of iOS 12.1, but said far fewer people may even notice, thanks to advances in both the silicon and performance management systems in general.

In October of 2019, iPhone XS and XR were added in 2019 as part of iOS 13.1. And, I'd expect, the iPhones 11 will be added in October 2020 as part of iOS 14.1.

And, now, yeah, they've been fined €25 million euros in France and settled for half a billion dollars in the U.S.

Not for doing the wrong thing. I firmly believe that between letting phones shut down and slowing them down, between reliability and speed, Apple made the right decision. They just did it in the wrong way, especially in terms of informing and educating their customers on what was happening and why.

Now, the important thing is to learn from this going forward so that the next time anything happens, Apple is ahead of the information curve and not behind it.

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Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.