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Though lawsuits and government investigations into Apple’s iPhone battery debacle multiplied and went international in January, Canada’s government escalated its investigation today, bringing representatives of Canada’s Competition Bureau, Apple, and Primate Labs — the Toronto, Canada-based company that unearthed the issue — to testify before the House of Commons’ standing committee on industry, science, and technology.
Faced with charts from Primate Labs’ Geekbench that showed dramatic performance reductions across multiple iPhones, Apple admitted last December that it had been slowing down certain iPhones based on declining battery performance. The company publicly apologized, then dropped the price of replacement iPhone batteries to $ 29 in the U.S. ($ 35 in Canada) through the end of 2018.
The members of parliament (MPs) seemed primarily concerned with ensuring that Canadian customers were being treated fairly by Apple, both prior to and after Apple’s admission. Representing the Competition Bureau, Alexa Gendron-O’Donnell explained that the organization’s interest was in protecting consumers from false or misleading advertising and that a U.S. company operating in Canada must comply with Canadian civil and criminal laws, including the truth in marketing requirements of the Competition Law. Responding to questions from the MPs, she noted that there was not as yet a law prohibiting planned obsolescence in Canada, and that based on Competition Bureau policy, she isn’t able to comment on whether the agency was already dealing with Apple in this case.
John Poole of Primate Labs noted that although his company had received consumer complaints of slowdowns in iPhones, he originally believed that they were attributable to an issue with iOS 11. However, a Reddit post noting performance improvements after a battery replacement led Primate Labs to investigate further. Based on additional research, Poole determined that the cause of the slowdown was introduced in iOS 10.2.1, though he didn’t know exactly why.
MPs asked Poole whether the issue affected Canadian and U.S. iPhones differently — after checking Geekbench data, and to the best of his knowledge, Poole said he didn’t think so. They also asked whether Poole felt the battery issue was evidence that Apple engages in planned obsolescence, and Poole said that while he originally might have thought so, Apple’s explanation that it slows devices rather than letting them become unstable made more sense. Still, he felt Apple’s lack of transparency in the matter was an issue.
Poole was also asked if Apple had misrepresented the iPhone to the public. While Poole noted that the public knows Apple’s claims tend to be “up to” and ideal case scenarios, consumers wouldn’t have expected their devices to get slower over time due to battery issues. Additionally, he said that Apple representatives at stores would tell people nothing was wrong with their batteries.
In a separate panel, Jacqueline Famulak and Simon Potter represented Apple Canada, initially reading from prepared remarks before answering questions. Famulak explained Apple’s prior public statements on battery performance, saying that the company’s power management software was designed to enable customers to keep using flagging devices, rather than forcing them to replace phones that would otherwise face the risk of unexpected shutdown. She said that software updates always come with a “readme note” that the customer can read before installation, and that the 10.2.1 note disclosed the power management solution. Beyond offering discounted batteries, she mentioned that the latest version of iOS includes battery management tools.
MPs aggressively questioned Famulak, noting that Poole’s work had seemingly established that unexpected shutdowns can happen at 30% battery life, yet Apple’s slowdowns can begin at 70% remaining battery power — if Apple wasn’t interested in degrading the user experience, why would it slow phones before they hit that 30% point? Famulak said that if other conditions are established, such as a very low temperature or chemical aging of the battery, the phone would manage its power and slow down even if it wasn’t at 30%. She later said that the 30% number wasn’t necessarily accurate.
Another MP asked Famulak what Apple is doing to educate customers about the problem. She responded that they’ve put out statements, and moreover, the company is still selling the affected models, not pulling them from the market. The MP noted that it’s not prominent on the company’s web site, and he wouldn’t have known about it but for news reports.
In a particularly testy exchange, MP Brian Masse asked Famulak why she thought the governments of so many countries were investigating Apple — wasn’t there a cause? Famulak responded that she didn’t believe Apple had done anything wrong.
For the time being, there appear to have been fairly few complaints — only 20 — to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, though the Competition Bureau couldn’t disclose the number of complaints it had received regarding potential false marketing by Apple.
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