I was recently asked for my take on the Apple Battery Slowdown “Scandal” by a nephew who works in the tech industry (Apple’s response is here).  My first impulse was what scandal and my second was submarine batteries – it may seem a weird connection but there is a connection.

Let me start with a discussion of submarine batteries.

Many people assume that with modern nuclear-powered submarines other modes of power are no longer used but that’s not so.  Modern submarines have both diesel-powered generators and large battery packs as backup power sources and for startup power when shore power is unavailable.  And the status of these power sources is critical – I remember moving a submarine from drydock to pier with an underpowered temporary diesel generator while the reactor was down.  The movement took longer than expected and the battery power dropped to an unacceptable level before shore power was reconnected – a nasty letter from the ship’s CO to my CO was the result.

Batteries are the reason why there were real operational submarines in both the First and Second World War – they allowed submarines to operate while submerged.  But there was a trade off when compared to the submarine on the surface – the submarine had to move slower because the power available wasn’t as great as that provided by diesel engines on the surface.  The faster the submarine went underwater, the faster the batteries were drained.  To compensate for this fact, submariners would turn off all non-essential equipment and avoided high speeds – it was just common sense.

The batteries would slowly degrade with time which is why submarines had to have overhauls during the war – to upgrade equipment and replace batteries so they would hold more power.  Everyone who works with rechargeable batteries knows this.

Which brings me back to Apple and slowing the older iPhones when the batteries start losing their performance.  To engineers, this is just standard practice to give the appearance of the batteries working as they ought.  Submariners understand that to retain your tactical advantage, you need to periodically replace the batteries or slowdown the usage of battery power.

Now, consider the average iPhone user – technical literacy is shockingly low in the general population.  The average iPhone user can’t tell you how cell phones work or why they can do more than make phone calls.  They just know that you can go to the Apple Store and download an app and do what you want.  I remember the surprise people had when they couldn’t make cell phone connections on 9/11 because the circuits were overloaded – but the land lines worked fine.

Apple engineers took the appropriate technical approach to dealing with aging batteries in older iPhones.  In short, the engineers did nothing wrong.

But the same can’t be said about the business side of Apple and their confederates, i.e., the cell phone companies.

As we have seen with Wells Fargo creating fake accounts, the motivation in the business side is to sell more phones.  And if a salesperson has the option of offering a user a new battery for $79 or a new iPhone for $790 which will they push?  Right, the $79 battery replacement – NOT!  Plus, they can lock you into an extended plan for 2-4 years with a new iPhone.  For the salesperson, it’s win-win-win.  For the user with little knowledge of their options, there seems to be little choice and they get a useable phone in short order.

When my wife and her siblings got together to clean out the old family homestead after their parents died, they discovered dozens of empty gas containers.  It seems their father would just buy a new gas container every time he needed to get gas for the lawnmower rather than go home and get one.  It was just easier.

But learning about options takes time and effort and there are so many other things to be doing.  So, like my father-in-law, it easier to just get new and Apple and the cell phone companies are happy to accommodate.

PS – My wife’s iPhone (shown above) had this problem and it became so bad we finally took it into the Apple Store.  Yes, it was an old iPhone – a 5S – and we were told the battery was dead and it was time for an upgrade.  But I asked about a battery replacement.  My wife is still using, and enjoying, her iPhone 5S.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.