If you’ve ever thought your old iPhone was feeling sluggish, you’re not alone. And you’re not imagining it: Apple has confirmed to multiple media outlets that it slows the performance of older iPhones in order to prevent their aging batteries from causing unexpected shutdowns.
Apple says it began slowing down the iPhone 6, iPhone 6s, and iPhone SE last year, and just began doing so with the iPhone 7, which is little more than a year old. The company’s statement came after a recent Reddit post and blog post on benchmarking tool Geekbench’s website sparked a conversation around the relationship between flagging iPhone performance and battery condition.
Apple may have the best of intentions. Having your phone occasionally slow down is probably preferable to coping with total shutdowns, as is prolonging the overall life of your battery. But some are reading the company’s statement as confirmation of a longstanding myth: Apple slows down old iPhones to get users to upgrade to newer, pricer models as a form of planned obsolescence. (The company also charges about $80 to replace an old iPhone battery with a fresh one.)
Either way, Apple is in some hot water over the issue. A pair of California residents have already filed a class action lawsuit against the company. They claim Apple interfered with the possession of their phones, as they did not consent to Apple’s meddling with their devices’ performance.
The California suit underscores the true issue here. It’s not Apple’s fault that the lithium ion batteries that power iPhones (and lots of other gadgets in our lives) become less potent as they age. But the company wasn’t transparent about its solution to this dilemma, nor did it give users a choice over the matter. When it comes to people who spent hundreds of dollars on an iPhone 6 without being warned the device’s performance may lag after only a couple of years, frustration is understandable. (Apple told TechCrunch that in early 2017 that it “made improvements” to reduce the frequency of shutdowns in older iPhones, but did not clarify what those improvements were. Apple did not respond to TIME’s request for comment on the matter.)
Of course, Apple has never been known for its transparency. The company is notoriously secretive, even with its own employees, who get information on a need-to-know basis. And there are some iPhone specifications that aren’t listed on Apple’s website, such as battery capacity and memory, leading to a cottage industry of hardware tinkerers who test and poke and prod Apple’s products to find out more about them than the company freely shares.
With the revelation that Apple was withholding information about aging iPhones’ performance from consumers, the company could jeopardize consumer trust. That’s a big deal for a company like Apple, a brand built around customer loyalty and positive perceptions. A Morgan Stanley survey from this spring found that 92% of iPhone owners who planned to buy a new phone in the next 12 months were likely to stick with Apple. By comparison, only 77% of Samsung device owners said the same. Trust is vital to the iPhone’s success — when customers buy one, they want to feel they know exactly what they’re getting. They trust that the experience will be similar and comfortable no matter which model they choose, unlike the Android landscape, where devices can vary greatly between companies like Samsung, Google, and LG, among others. It’s that trust that gets users hooked into Apple’s entire ecosystem of Mac and Apple Watch products, too.
Apple has long strived to design products that “just work.” In that sense, you might understand why the company hid these performance slowdowns from public view — Apple might feel that it should be doing the heavy lifting behind the scenes, shielding customers from having to worry about the nitty gritty of how their technology works with a bit of software “secret sauce.” But in this case, Apple’s decision may invite more trouble than thanks — a better solution may be to ask users whether they’re O.K. with performance slowdowns if it means keeping their battery healthy for longer. Moving forward, Apple will have to decide whether keeping its secret sauce a secret is worth risking the trust of their most loyal customers.
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