Lawsuits Over Apple’s iPhone Throttling are Predictable, but still Ridiculous

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Death, taxes, and a few people looking to grab some of Apple’s pile of cash anytime there is a high-profile story that rubs them the wrong way. That last bit is just as predictable, as the news that Apple is slowing the processor speed of iPhones with worn batteries to prevent device shutdowns and potential component damage surely had some attorneys waiting by their phones. Maybe the first three to bite should have been a little more selective.

Just two days after Apple admitted to this “feature” (not a good choice of words, given the context), we have reports of three class-action lawsuits. If you do a little reading all three are legal reaches that, if we are all being honest, are just sloppy attempts to get Apple to pay them to go away. The only ones who stand a chance to make any real money will be the lawyers. In other news, the Earth is round, will keep on turning just like every other day and there is nothing new under the sun. Yawn.

Just for kicks, let’s take a look at how amateurish these first three complaints are. One of the suits lists the iPhone 7S as an affected device. Oops. I guess a paralegal somewhere in Los Angeles is losing their job.

Another suit filed by five users in Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, and North Carolina claims that Apple’s actions are “deceptive, immoral, and unethical,” Ok. I don’t completely agree, but doesn’t matter whether you, I, or anyone else buys this or not. None of the above are illegal, on the surface. Their actual legal claim is that Apple “needlessly subjects consumers to purchasing newer and more expensive iPhones when a replacement battery could have allowed consumers to continue to use their older iPhones,” Considering that Apple openly offers in-store battery replacements for $79, and there are thousands of repair shops all over that will do it for less, there is absolutely no way this argument would hold up in a court of law. In fact, this argument is so flimsy I wouldn’t be surprised to see this case dismissed at an early hearing.

The third lawsuit, filed by Keaton Harvey from Northern California, is a little more interesting because it challenges Apple’s motives for throttling processor speeds as a way to sidestep replacing a large number of batteries. While there would seem to be some merit to this suit, I think it will ultimately run into problems, as well. Apple’s standard manufacturer’s warranty only covers one year of parts and labor. While Apple will often replace components outside of the warranty period if there are known defects with the parts involved, that isn’t a stated company policy and can’t be enforced as law.

The other issue here would be proving whether a battery is defective, or just worn after over a year of heavy use. I use my iPhone constantly, all day, every day for work, personal stuff, and in my work here at iPad Insight. I can definitely tell a difference in battery life by the end of year one, when I usually upgrade. They are just starting to go by that point. However, I know from helping friends and family members who hang onto devices longer that by midway through year two, most batteries are toast. If you want to continue using the phone, you have to replace the battery, and being out of warranty, you will have to pay for it yourself. This isn’t just true of iPhones, either. It’s true of most other smartphones, as all of the major players are getting their batteries from a handful of suppliers.

At the end of the day,  Apple isn’t “forcing” anyone to upgrade by throttling processor speeds. That is just a red herring to drum up outrage. The real issue is that a number of people want this done for free even though they are outside of the warranty period. They don’t want to pay $79 for a new battery when that’s what they need to get their phone back on track. However, neither Apple or any other manufacturer owes that to anyone, whether they do it in some cases, or not. The unfortunate thing about these kinds of suits for most of us Apple fans is that they may encourage Apple to pull back the reigns on their long-standing practice of liberal device repair and replacement.

Let me back up and be clear at this point- if a user has a defective battery that starts causing them problems within the one year warranty period, they should get either a replacement battery or a phone exchange with no questions asked. If Apple was found to be bypassing that responsibility, then a lawsuit would be warranted. I haven’t seen anyone accusing them of doing this, so far. In fact, there is a mountain of anecdotal evidence pointing to Apple being pretty liberal with repairs and exchanged within the warranty period. I know I had no issues getting a failed AirPod replaced this Summer, even though I had no clue what happened to it. I know another user who tried his luck after running his AirPods through the wash. They still worked, but the sound quality was diminished. Apple exchanged both with no questions. I will be shocked if we hear of any lawsuits over in-warranty refusals because of stories like these.

Where things could get a little more interesting would be if someone who purchased AppleCare+, which gives them two years of parts and labor warranty, could prove that Apple refused to replace their battery and they ended up being throttled. Apple could have some legitimate liability in such a case. I haven’t seen where any of the current lawsuits have mentioned AppleCare+, but I won’t be surprised if that becomes a legitimate thread in this story down the road.

Whatever the merit of the claim, one of the biggest problems with all of these suits is the issue of legal proof. Things get dicey when it comes to normal battery wear vs defects. If you were to bring a phone back to Apple with a battery that isn’t defective, but simply worn by heavy use, what is Apple’s legal liability? There likely isn’t any, because all manufacturer’s warranty statements include stipulations that limit liability to defects and exclude normal wear and tear and cosmetic and non-operational issues. This is standard, boiler plate stuff that all companies use for their products.

While Apple is usually good about repairing and replacing in-warranty devices in such instances and giving users the benefit of the doubt, they don’t have to. Proving that a battery in a phone that’s been used for over a year is actually defective would be damn near impossible, and if a user no longer had said phone anymore, it would be completely impossible, at least in a legal sense.

Also, keep in mind that there are PLENTY of examples of the limits of current battery tech and the strain that modern smartphones place on it. If one of these suits goes to trial, you can safely bet the house that Apple’s attorneys will be bringing Samsung’s issues with the Note 7 up as evidence of what can happen if batteries are mismanaged or have actual defects in design or manufacturing. It is also pertinent that Samsung actually tried throttling and limiting the Note 7 and its battery capacity as potential fixes for the problems they had before going the route of a total recall.

Most of these lawsuits will break down around one of these issues. If the battery isn’t shown to be defective within the applicable warranty period, then Apple’s actions can’t be determined to be a cover up, as one suit claims. There is no way that Apple can be legally shown to be “forcing” users to upgrade to a newer phone because they offer battery replacements, others offer replacements, and there are plenty of Android phones that users are free to move to. And, if batteries are shown to just be worn from a year or more’s use and not defective, then Apple has no legal obligation to repair or replace anything. I think very, very few cases will get past all of these hurdles and actually hold up to the point of being either settled or tried.

At the end of the day, these lawsuits fall somewhere between a misguided expression of outrage and a barely disguised attempt at a cash-grab. If what Apple did makes you mad, let them know in a way that actually makes some sense. Go to the Apple Store and complain. Call Tech Support. Express your opinion on Apple’s social media accounts and Support Message Boards. Email Tim Cook. Blog about it and post it everywhere. If that’s not good enough, then get rid of your Apple products and move to another brand. If you REALLY feel that Apple is out to get you, then you probably should.

As for me, I made it pretty clear yesterday that I actually see the reasoning in Apple throttling the processor to prevent processor safety shutdowns. I make the same kinds of decisions when programming for my customers every day, so what they did doesn’t bother me in the least. I also don’t think the conspiracy theories about the why hold water, either. If you want to go down the Reddit Rabbit Hole, be my guest, but I have no time for such craziness.

In my opinion, the issue here for a reasonable Apple fan is the how. A company has to know its customer base, and can’t leave itself open to a situation that can be interpreted this way. A large chunk of that customer base is going to listen to these stories of lawsuits and Apple “forcing users to upgrade early” and buy it hook, line, and sinker. Not seeing this coming was a big mistake on Apple’s part. At the end of the day, this isn’t a conspiracy, consumer fraud, or a cover-up. It is a combination of botched PR and naive implementation, and those are self-inflicted wounds that have to be avoided.

I am interested in what you think about this whole “BatteryGate” issue? Do you really think Apple throttles processors with the sole intent of “forcing early upgrades?” Do you think they are trying to cover up actual battery defects, or are we just seeing the way we use our phones come up against the limits of current battery tech? If you don’t buy the conspiracy theories, then what should Apple have done differently? Let me know in the Comments section below, on Flipboard, on our Facebook page, or on Twitter @iPadInsightBlog.

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3 thoughts on “Lawsuits Over Apple’s iPhone Throttling are Predictable, but still Ridiculous”

  1. As someone who’s iPhone 5 frequently shut down and after plugging in to charge still had 40% battery life, I understand where Apple is coming from. I didn’t understand then, but do now. At the time it pi–ed me off no end. I would have much rather had my phone finish what it was doing, at a slower pace, than crap out and shut off.

    1. How old was your 5 when this was occurring? Just curious.

      I can see where Apple offering customers, especially those who are less savvy, full control over how diminished batteries are handled isn’t a good idea. However, they need to find some middle ground somewhere to give users a measure of control.

  2. Probably, the software to throttle older iPhones/iPads as their batteries degrade, is included in updates after a year or so.
    I remember my new iPad 2 slowing dramatically after updating beyond IOS 7 … I presently have an iPad Mini 2 for occasional use alongside my Macbook Pro… I have not updated that beyond IOS 9 because of my experience with my earlier iPad, and it is still very fast and extremely useful. I believe, because I have ceased to update the operating system

    The problem with Apple software is the constant nagging to update the software on all of their products often on a daily basis, (the nag not the updates) usually claiming primarily security updates, and although I appreciate Apples argument about protecting hardware from under voltage by throttling, I still believe that the real reason for the constant nag to upgrade, may be to include the throttling software in updates after a year or so to render hardware obsolete sooner, not just for security reasons… particularly to phones, which many folks now do replace annually. Companies like 02 now even have “Refresh” contracts that do allow you to upgrade annually, if you are willing to pay the high contract fees.

    I have read of folks paying to have batteries replaced but still experiencing slow performance (still throttling ?) I believe that manufacturers should return/start to fit removable batteries,.. a slide in battery to a sealed compartment would still allow a phone to be waterproof, and as far as the obsession with slimmer phones… why ? when the first thing we do with a new phone is sensibly put it into a protective case to protect our expensive equipment, adding to the thickness anyhow.

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