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Apple is testing customers’ trust with secrecy about slowing older iPhones

Apple CEO Tim Cook talked about the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus during an Apple event in 2015. Battery performance in older phones has put the company on the hot seat recently.
Associated Press
Apple CEO Tim Cook talked about the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus during an Apple event in 2015. Battery performance in older phones has put the company on the hot seat recently.

So it wasn’t just me.

In recent weeks, I’ve noticed that my 2½-year-old iPhone 6s runs just a tiny bit slower than it once did. It’s a marginal difference. Apps don’t launch quite as fast, searches of my overstuffed e-mail box take a few seconds longer. Nothing to get upset about.

Then came last week’s news that Apple Inc. had issued an iPhone software upgrade that slows down older phones to protect their aging batteries. So I’ve probably got Apple to thank for my phone’s sluggish performance.

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Yet what bothers me isn’t the trivial slowdown; it’s the fact that I learned about it through some dedicated smartphone geeks, rather than from Apple.

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I’m not sure why the company chose secrecy. Its software tweak may be a good idea. But it was deployed at a moment when Americans are running out of reasons to trust the good intentions of leading technology firms.

We’ve seen how tech titans Google, Facebook, and Twitter let themselves be used by the government of Russia to distribute fake news in a covert campaign to meddle in the 2016 US presidential election. And we’ve watched as Equifax, a company that collected sensitive data on 143 million Americans without our permission, let cybercriminals steal it all — placing nearly all of us at risk of identity theft for years to come.

Compared to these outrages, Apple’s lapse is trivial. Yet in light of recent events, it’s no wonder that many iPhone users are not in a forgiving mood. As of Wednesday afternoon, the company was facing nine class-action lawsuits in courthouses from California to Israel, seeking millions in damages, free battery replacements, or new phones.

The furor began last week, when Primate Labs, a Canadian outfit that builds computer performance testing software, investigated multiple gripes that iPhones ran slower as they aged. The researchers concluded that Apple must have modified the phones’ iOS operating system “to limit performance when battery condition decreases past a certain point.”

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Phone batteries start losing their ability to hold a charge after about two years, so Apple’s fix mainly affects old phones. Thus it’s no surprise that at least one lawsuit alleges the software gimmick is a kind of planned obsolescence, a way to goad people into purchasing new iPhones a few months early.

After all, Apple derives about two-thirds of its revenue from iPhone sales, and has plenty of incentive to stoke the fire.

But for years I’ve covered Apple’s maniacal commitment to excellence. Call me naive, but I can’t imagine the company deliberately programming a defect into its products. However, I could imagine them trying to cover up a defect that’s already there.

At this time last year, Apple confronted a wave of complaints from iPhone 6 owners. Their batteries were showing inexplicable decreases in power — going from, say, 50 percent to 20 percent in a couple of minutes. Sometimes the phones would simply shut down without warning.

Apple said the problem was related to defective batteries installed in a handful of devices in the fall of 2015. The owners of these phones could simply go to an Apple store to get a free replacement battery, instead of paying the usual $79 fee. But gripes kept coming from iPhone 6 owners whose devices weren’t included in the recall. Apple admitted this was happening, and vowed to figure it out.

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So Apple introduced its software tweak. This eliminated phone crashes for many iPhone users, at the cost of slower performance. It also let Apple avoid replacing millions of defective batteries. Anyway, that’s the theory behind some of the lawsuits, and it has a certain plausibility.

Apple issued a statement defending its motives as entirely innocent. An iPhone tends to crash if its processor wants more power than the battery can deliver. So the new software slows down the phone to match the capacity of older, weaker batteries, the company said.

This ensures that phones with older batteries keep working.

This smacks of the familiar we-know-best attitude that Apple fans usually applaud. But it’s a smart way to extend the life of an aging iPhone. So I’d have believed Apple’s explanation, without question, if Apple had been upfront about it.

But Apple wasn’t. So I have my doubts. So do lots of other people. And that’s good.

It’s time to become a lot more skeptical about the digital hardware and software that pervade our lives, gadgets and networks created by people we don’t know, with motives we don’t fully comprehend.

The stuff they create is often marvelous, and sometimes miraculous. But in exchange for their miracles, we give them not just our money, but also our trust. By failing to play it straight with its customers, Apple abused that trust.

And now the bill comes due.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.