Seventy-eight consumers from around the world have put their names on an 11-count proposed class action lawsuit filed in California federal court against Apple, Inc.
According to the 38-page complaint, Apple issued deliberately misleading statements around the time it admitted that a supposedly small number of iPhone 6 smartphones suffered from a battery problem that caused the devices to suddenly shut down despite being at least 30 percent charged.
What Apple hid from the world, the plaintiffs claim, is that the issue ran much, much deeper. The lawsuit charges that the problem stemmed not from “ambient air” the batteries were allegedly exposed to during assembly as the company publicly claimed, but from a “mismatch” between the inherent capabilities of the devices’ built-in hardware and the increasingly strenuous demands placed on the devices by Apple’s ever-updating iOS operating system. Even further, the suit claims that subsequent iOS software updates rolled out by Apple to ostensibly address the problem contained hidden code to “throttle” devices—the performance of which was effectively limited from day one by inadequate batteries.
Alleged in the lawsuit are violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the Consumer Legal Remedies Act, and various California consumer protection statutes.
When you say devices, which Apple products are you talking about?
With the exception of the company’s laptop and desktop computers, just about all hand-held Apple devices, including:
iPhone 6 Plus;
iPhone 6s Plus;
iPhone 7 Plus;
Fourth Generation iPad;
iPad Mini 2;
iPad Air 2;
iPad Mini 3;
iPad Mini 4;
9.7-inch iPad Pro;
Fifth Generation iPad;
10.5-inch iPad Pro;
12.9-inch iPad Pro; and
Sixth Generation iPad.
Start from the beginning.
Reports began surfacing back in Fall 2016 that many iPhone devices worldwide were shutting down unexpectedly despite their batteries being more than 30 percent charged, the lawsuit explains. In November 2016, Apple spoke publicly about the issue and, the suit says, “finally admitted a problem” in an allegedly small number of iPhone 6s devices manufactured in September and October 2015.
Apple at the time attributed the issue to the exposure of certain iPhone batteries to “ambient air” during the assembly process, and offered $79 battery replacements in the United States and free battery replacements to iPhone owners whose phones fell within a “limited serial range.”
According to the lawsuit, however, it became clear shortly after Apple’s November 2016 admission that far more iPhones than just a handful of iPhone 6s were stricken with the battery defect than the company was letting on.
2017 “Bug Fixes”
In January 2017, the defendant released software updates to all Apple devices to gather diagnostic data, the suit continues. At the time, though, Apple reportedly told consumers the update was to fix bugs or improve security. A month later, according to the suit, Apple revealed the update was, in fact, intended to address the battery shutdown problem.
The plaintiffs argue, however, that the line they and the media were fed by Apple was more incomplete than initially believed.
Was Apple hiding something?
That’s what the lawsuit alleges. From the complaint:
Missing from these statements to consumers or to the tech press was the true purpose of the software update—to conceal a much larger defect than the public knew—namely, there was a mismatch between the Devices’ hardware, including their processing chips and rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, and the ever-increasing demands placed on the Devices via Apple’s constantly-updating iOS software platform.”
Break this down for me.
The supposed “mismatch” between the hardware—namely processing chips and batteries—built into Apple devices and the constantly growing demands placed on those devices is inherent, the lawsuit alleges. Quite frankly, the suit claims, there is no software update Apple could roll out to cure the damaging discrepancy between what its devices are actually capable of and what is asked of those same devices via their iOS operating systems.
The plaintiffs allege Apple’s purported “fixes” for the battery issue were one component of a temporary smokescreen meant to disguise a much more serious problem:
This mismatch is referred to as the ‘Defect(s).’ And the software update did not ‘fix’ or ‘cure’ the Defect—it instead concealed it by secretly throttling the Devices’ performance to reduce the number of unexpected shutdowns to a more manageable volume. Apple partially ‘cured’ one defect by making another defect more aggressive— accomplished by violating federal computer fraud laws and a host of various state laws. For eleven months, the secret remained uncovered as Apple continued to hide the whole truth.”
Apple’s sleight of hand continued into December 2017 with another update—iOS 11.2—in which more device-throttling code was inserted, according to the lawsuit. Consumers were none the wiser, the case adds, as Apple said the update contained more bug fixes and other vague “improvements.”
“Apple did not reveal the defects,” the complaint states.
The (alleged) truth comes out
The way the lawsuit describes it, Apple “admitted to one of the largest consumer frauds in history” on December 20, 2017, after independent research published online showed a “marked degradation” in the performance of a large sample of devices following the installation of the aforementioned iOS updates.
Apple’s admission stated, in part (emphasis from the complaint):
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.”
According to the lawsuit, the above admission was still not the entire, unadulterated truth regarding Apple’s iOS device throttling. The phrase “smooth out” was yet another misrepresentation, the plaintiffs argue.
“A downpour of media reports ensued, several of which used the more appropriate term—'throttle’—to define this ‘smooth[ing]’ feature that Apple inserted into the code for the iOS 10.2.1 update,” the case reads.
The cold, hard truth about Apple device batteries (according to the lawsuit)
Batteries in Apple devices degrade over time, as they have a finite number of charge and discharge cycles, the lawsuit explains. Throttling a device’s battery via iOS software updates allowed Apple to manipulate said battery to draw less current, thereby enabling it to run a particular device for the same amount of time as would a new battery. The trade-off there, the case says, is that said device’s processing speed slowed down markedly.
“This is akin to a drive going slower to get better gas mileage,” the complaint analogizes.
Sticking with the car comparisons, the suit goes on to say that over time, an Apple device’s “gas tank”—its battery—will shrink as new, more demanding iOS updates are rolled out. Predictably, new updates mean even slower performance from batteries and, consequently, processors, that may already be struggling to keep up with the power demands of the iOS system.
“Given the constant iOS upgrades requiring the processors in Apple’s Devices to perform more and more tasks,” the lawsuit says, “the batteries were inadequate for the Devices from day one, hence the Defects.”
Is that why I have to charge my phone seemingly all the time?
The short answer is yes. The more nuanced answer, according to the case, is that while constant recharging is necessary to continue using Apple devices that may be stricken with the throttling defect, it’s also the reason why the batteries continue to degrade.
Does the case say why Apple would do all this?
The lawsuit alleges the answer to this question in plain English:
While [the plaintiffs] and the class need not attribute any motive behind Apple’s intentional degradation of the Devices, it is evident that Apple continued to do so for the simple reason most frauds are committed: money.”
In summary, according to the case, Apple’s devices were defectively designed—period. Apple released software updates in an effort to conceal the defects while, at the same time, the case claims, making the throttling-related performance issues worse so that consumers had no choice but to buy or upgrade their devices.
Notably, sales of the allegedly defective Apple devices accounted for “at least 70 percent” of the company’s overall revenue from 2013 through 2017, totaling nearly $800 billion, the suit says.
As for why Apple never allowed itself to fully face the music with regard to the throttling allegations, the lawsuit floats the theory that a slight fiscal downturn for Apple in 2016 and 2017 may have had something to do with it. Noting that Apple, at the time, was staring down a saturated iPhone market, slumping iPad sales, bolstered overall competition and a less-than-ideal outlook for sales of its Mac products, the complaint claims the right opportunity for Apple to fess up simply never presented itself.
“As such, a perfect storm was brewing for Apple, with a host of problems threatening its continued ability to profit in the smartphone and tablet markets,” the lawsuit reads. “No time, and particularly during 2016 and 2017, was a good time for Apple to reveal that its Devices were defective. And so, the sly saga progressed.”
Which consumers are covered by this lawsuit?
If you own an Apple device that runs the iOS operating system, chances are you’ll be covered if the suit goes the way it hopes. The lawsuit seeks to cover:
All purchasers, owners, users or lessees of the following Apple Devices: the Apple iPhone 5, 5s, 5c, 6, 6s 6 Plus, 6s Plus, SE, 7, 7 Plus, and the Apple iPad, including the Fourth Generation, Mini, Air, Mini 2, Update to Fourth Generation, Air 2, Mini 3, Mini 4, Pro, and 9.7-Inch Pro, Fifth Generation, 10.5-Inch Pro, 12.9-Inch Pro, and Sixth Generation.”