Apple did something out of the ordinary yesterday. In a public letter it apologized for slowing older iPhone performance due to a software upgrade without warning customers that such a result could happen. The apology tried for emotional intelligence but was too little, too late for many.

The iPhone drives Apple's fortunes, being responsible for the bulk of its revenue and profits. That's why the company needed a $1,000 phone to help push up the average sales price of the product line to maintain financial strength. But Apple's culture of control periodically blows up, as in this case, and works against the company.

Slowing performance to stop shutdowns

Many people don't upgrade phones as frequently as they once did when carriers subsidized the cost of handsets, hiding them in monthly service fees. Of those, a good percentage seem to have run across a problem with slower phone performance starting with iOS 10.2.1 a year ago.

As Apple put it, batteries degrade over time in what it called a "chemical aging process." The older the battery, the less capable it is "of delivering peak energy loads, especially in a low state of charge, which may result in a device unexpectedly shutting itself down in some situations."

To avoid shutdowns, Apple changed power management in iOS to moderate performance of some parts of the phone (chip speed likely being one of the aspects) to lower power use and prevent a shutdown. "While these changes may go unnoticed, in some cases users may experience longer launch times for apps and other reductions in performance," the company wrote.

Unhappy customers

The big problem was that Apple never bothered to tell its customers what has happening. As part of its secretive culture, the company rarely has in the past. The iPhone platform is rigidly controlled by Apple. Devices are like the old Henry Ford production line, where you could have any color so long as it was black.

When the iPhone 4 had its antenna problems, Steve Jobs addressed the issue but didn't apologize for the resulting bad performance. Instead, he rationalized the situation and blamed customers for not holding the phone the way he did. As if Apple would have no responsibility to understand how people interact with devices, which is supposed to be one of the company's strong suits.

By not communicating with consumers in this latest case, Apple left them to assume there was something wrong with their phones that required the purchase of a new device. Although the apology letter stated, "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," that is effectively what happened.

Limitations of a battery fix

Phone battery replacement, while predictable, is no longer something easy for consumers to do. The big manufacturers have adopted designs that discourage it. Instead, you either get information online about how to do the procedure and risk invalidating the warranty or you send it to a service center.

Battery replacement for iPhones has been a $79 charge. At that rate, people often rationalize that upgrading to the new model isn't that much more, so might as well get the added benefits of new devices. But a different reaction is likely when you hear that slow performance may only have been due to a battery that you can't easily swap.

As Walt Mossberg noted on Twitter, given that Apple is now calling batteries "consumable" components, the industry could well move back to designs that allowed customers to replace them.

Too little, too late

But that may not be good enough, at least for Apple. Although the apology -- and, notably, the letter used that important term -- tried to take an emotionally intelligent tone, the company still tried to explain its way out of trouble and then offer factory battery replacements for $29 along with a promise of an iOS update "with new features that give users more visibility into the health of their iPhone's battery."

Apple's explanation tries to say that no one there previously realized the problem, but come on. Complaints have been around for some time and the company is supposed to be legendary in part because it understands consumers' needs and knows how to deliver what they want. To say no one there had any idea seems to admit they're out of touch.

That leaves some consumers feeling badly used. I've already seen former long-time iPhone users switching to Samsung. (I've even heard the "too little too late" language in play.) They're angry and the apology comes across as trying to backstop a growing problem.

Apple has managed such maneuvers in the past, like when it faced complaints about batteries overheating in iPods. But with this many customers, it becomes next to impossible to write off issues as affecting only a small percentage, as that still means millions of people. And when growth gets increasingly more of a challenge when customers and revenues have been at all-time highs, that's exactly the wrong thing to do.

Published on: Dec 29, 2017