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Tim Cook needs to take responsibility for Apple's battery scandal (AAPL)

Kif Leswing
Tim Cook

AP


  • Apple made a rare public apology after the recent revelation that the company slowed down older iPhones through a software update.
  • Many Apple customers believe the slowdown is a violation of their trust. Apple says it is because of how older batteries work. 
  • The apology is unsigned. It would mean a lot more to Apple customers if it came from CEO Tim Cook or another top Apple executive. 

 

Apple is embroiled in one of its most dire scandals in years, as the company was forced to admit that its software updates slow down old iPhones, confirming a long-held theory by iPhone users.

According to Apple, its software updates can make apps slow to launch, slow down the smoothness of scrolling through an feed, and take other performance hits.

Apple made a rare public apology on its website on Thursday about the issue, saying the reason for the software slowdown was to protect phones with older batteries, which can suddenly shut down.

The public apology is technically detailed, relatively candid, and comes with a year-long discount for replacement iPhone batteries.

But one thing it's missing is a signature: The apology comes "from Apple," and it's not signed by of its high-paid executives, like Apple CEO Tim Cook.

An apology like this one, which acknowledges a breach of trust with users, needs to come from a person, not a corporate communications department. There needs to be a human name on the apology, because humans behind the decision ultimately decided not to tell customers. 

To date, no Apple executives have publicly commented on the scandal. Here's one question for them: When Apple's elite "executive team" met to discuss the update that would slow down older iPhones, did anyone bring up the possibility that the move could increase iPhone upgrade rates? 

Making a public apology seems like part of the job responsibility for a CEO. Cook made over $12 million in 2017, and he flies on private jets furnished by Apple.

It seems like attaching his name to an apology is the least he can do for Apple users who now feel betrayed.

Not the first time 

Thoughts on Flash

AppleCook has signed letters on Apple's website before, so it wouldn't be unprecedented. 

In February 2016, he posted "A Message to Our Customers" on Apple's website. It's signed "Tim Cook." He felt that Apple users needed to hear from him why the company was resisting an order from the FBI to help it break the encryption on an iPhone used by a terrorist in the San Bernardino attacks. 

It was a fair use of Apple's megaphone to communicate its position on an issue that directly affects it. On the other hand, most Apple users weren't directly impacted by the San Bernardino case — but there are millions of people with older iPhones now slowing down that may have been tempted to buy a new iPhone instead of replacing its battery, as Apple recommended in its apology earlier this week. 

When Apple took away Google Maps on the iPhone and replaced it with the inferior Apple Maps for purely business reasons, not user experience reasons, Cook signed that letter apologizing for the fiasco. Although it's not on the Apple website anymore, you can still see the URL: "letter-from-tim-cook-on-maps."

Apple founder and late CEO Steve Jobs was also famous for writing lucid, jargon-free messages to Apple customers, which may have contributed to the closeness many early Apple users felt to the company.

Take one of his last letters, "Thoughts on Flash," which is still on Apple's website. Users at the time were upset that iPhones weren't going to run Adobe Flash, which powered many interactive websites at the time.

His writing is clear, direct, and honest. He acknowledges there are downsides to his decision, like the fact that iPhone users couldn't play Flash games. But ultimately, Jobs made a case that Flash didn't belong on mobile devices, an argument that's only seemed stronger in retrospect.

Compare that to Apple's first statement on the slowdown issue, issued by a spokesperson, which has a lot of weasel words like the phrase "smooth out instantaneous peaks" for what it was really doing — throttling the top speed of older devices. 

When a millionaire executive takes responsibility for a piece of communications to its customers, you get more honest and direct writing. Instead, Apple's leadership is hiding behind its brand. 

'There’s been a lot of misunderstanding about this issue'

FILE PHOTO: An iPhone X is displayed on a table at an Apple store in New York, U.S., November 3, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo

Thomson ReutersAccording to Apple, the reason its newer software updates slow down older iPhones is directly related to battery issues, and any outrage from customers is because they don't understand the issue. 

"We know that some of you feel Apple has let you down. We apologize," someone at Apple wrote in its apology. "There’s been a lot of misunderstanding about this issue, so we would like to clarify and let you know about some changes we’re making."

According to Apple, the misunderstanding relates to changes Apple made in early 2017 to prevent unexpected device shutdowns. Batteries get worse over time, and after awhile, some older iPhones were randomly shutting down with 30% battery life left. 

Here's a bit of perspective, though: Apple wouldn't have addressed the shutdown issue if it wasn't from pressure from the Chinese government. In late 2016, a Chinese consumer watchdog called the China Consumers Association started making noise about Apple's random shutdown issue.

Eventually, Apple said — again unsigned — that the battery issue only affected a "very small number" of iPhones manufactured between September and October 2015, and offered battery replacements.

In fact, when Apple gave additional details about this issue, it was posted on Apple's Chinese website. But the Chinese consumer watchdog continued to press the issue, and asked for Apple to replace all faulty batteries. 

Apple eventually made the software fix that slowed down phones with older batteries in early 2017. It didn't even tell customers that it had made the tweak, again, in an unsigned comment from an Apple spokesperson. 

Part of the reason why so many Apple customers feel betrayed by the revelations of the past two weeks, even going to far as to start over 15 lawsuits, is that it feels like Apple continues to hide things. Apple's traditional approach to public relations is only making it worse, and has made this entire narrative unclear dating back to 2016. 

I personally believe Apple's explanation — there are difficult choices that need to be made when batteries get old, and Apple chose one that would optimize for as few shutdowns as possible. I think a lot more Apple customers would buy that explanation, too, if they heard it coming from Tim Cook. 

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