Remember when people lined up at Apple stores for new iPhones? These days, the crowds are back, but to turn their phones in — for a few minutes at least, while Apple gives them a new battery, and their used phones a new lease on life.
That’s ominous news for Apple and the entire smartphone industry, which need us to keep buying millions of new phones each year. Now Apple has given all of us a very good reason to hold off.
Apple phones, dating as far back as the 2014 iPhone 6, are entitled to a new battery for a mere $29, instead of Apple’s usual replacement fee of $79, or for free if the phone is still under warranty.
This is Apple’s way of acknowledging that it deliberately made older models run slower, to ease the strain that certain apps would place on their batteries. Otherwise, a sharp increase in processing power that some apps demand would overwhelm the battery and cause the phones to abruptly shut down. It seemed a reasonably clever way to extend the life of an old phone, but Apple wasn’t clever enough to tell its customers about it.
So when engineers at a computer testing firm stumbled on the truth, angry iPhone fans suspected that Apple was slowing their devices to get them to buy new ones. Dozens of lawsuits followed, along with menacing letters from the US Senate and the government of France.
Apple’s bargain battery replacement campaign is an attempt to kiss and make up. As charm offensives go, it’s not bad.
Problem is, the replacement program is so darned popular it seems nearly impossible to find a convenient appointment at an Apple store. This is what happens when demand overwhelms an Apple product. Karma.
To upgrade my iPhone 6S, I used one of the many other ways Apple offered to help: I entered my phone number on the company’s battery support page, and Apple vowed to call me within five minutes. About 10 seconds after I hit “send,” the phone rang.
A relentlessly sweet lady named Jeannine told me Apple could send me a mail-back package to ship the phone to a service center. The replacement would take a minimum of seven days. Or she could try to schedule an appointment at a local Apple store.
Alas, she, too, could not find open slots at nearby stores in the next five days. Jeannine found a sliver of time at the Apple store in Legacy Place, but it was later that day, in the middle of the afternoon, if I could hustle myself to Dedham.
The place looked like Christmas Eve, and a store employee told me most of the horde were there for the battery upgrade.
Clearly, I’d gotten lucky. And I got lucky again, when the Apple technician told me my upgrade would be free because I owned an iPhone that was built between September and October 2015 and was still under recall for a separate battery issue.
The repair job would take two hours, more time than I could spare, so I left the phone with the Apple crew to pick up later and headed back to downtown Boston.
Instead of driving to Dedham, maybe I should have walked across the street to the Staples store, where you can swap iPhone batteries for $29. They don’t use official Apple batteries, but Staples provides a one-year warranty. And many Best Buy locations contain authorized Apple mini-stores that also offer the $29 deal, with an Apple battery.
Of course, iPhone owners who aren’t having serious battery issues could simply wait a few days until the crowds thin. Apple’s cut-rate offer continues to Dec. 31, so there’s no hurry.
But the clock is ticking for Apple, a company that derives about two-thirds of its revenue from sales of new iPhones. Last month, some industry analysts predicted soft sales of the $1,000 iPhone X. Time will tell whether their numbers were wrong, but the battery fiasco increases the likelihood they will be right. Old iPhones with new batteries will deliver factory-fresh performance. While they lack the latest features, they’re still superb phones — and they’re paid for. So why buy new?
An analyst at Barclays Capital estimated that 77 percent of iPhone owners have phones that qualify for the battery replacement. Analyst Mark Moskowitz figures that if just one-tenth of these users opt for new batteries, Apple can expect to miss about $10 billion in sales of new iPhones.
But this could also herald a permanent downshift in smartphone sales. Remember how people used to buy new personal computers every couple of years? Then, about 10 years ago, we realized older machines were more than adequate. PC sales have been in a slump ever since.
This was bound to happen someday with smartphones. Maybe Apple just hit the fast-forward button by accident, showing that for a mere $29 many of us can get by with old phones, after all. Millions of iPhone loyalists — and maybe Android customers, too — will get the message: Buy new batteries, not new phones.
Apple has fixed its self-inflicted battery crisis. But it may have brought on an even bigger crisis on the smartphone industry.Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.