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European advocacy group calls out Apple for rigging iPhones, demands refund to consumers

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When an advocacy group received a host of complaints regarding the accelerated decline of iPhones, they discovered that Apple intentionally planned for them to break down.

Euroconsumers, a European consumer rights organization, demanded Apple pay iPhone users €60 each.  In their claim, Apple is called to account for what the group describes as, “planned obsolescence.”  The phrase refers to the business tactic of manufacturers designing products to fail quickly and in such a way that they fall into disrepair. Ultimately, consumers are forced to upgrade to newer models of the product.  

Euroconsumers grievance against Apple specifically addresses a software update released in late 2017. As a collective of national consumer advocacy groups from several nations including Belgium, Italy, Portugal, and Spain, they allege that iPhone users reported that Apple encouraged them to “ insistently to install the updates . . . without offering them clear and straightforward information.”  

The update, which Apple did not warn users of, caused a significant slowing of performance on devices with older batteries. In turn, the weakened batteries worsened the performance of the phone. Meanwhile, Apple was slow to replace batteries. 

Although Apple admitted that this action was deliberate, the tech multinational valued at $1.3 trillion, maintains that it was a precaution against these batteries suddenly failing.  However, as reported by iCulture, Euroconsumers believe that the iPhone’s lifespans were “artificially shortened” with no warning.  

The planned obsolescence that keeps on taking

Previously, in February, Apple was fined €25 million in France for the same complaint as Euroconsumers.  Again, the company acknowledged its wrongdoing.  But, Apple asserted that the update was only implemented to “prolong the life” of those models with older batteries, as a way to prevent a strain on their electrical components.  

Apple dubbed their practice of slowing phones as “performance management”.  Furthermore, they attested that its intention was never to force users to upgrade their devices.  However, many Apple users were driven to purchase new devices after theirs were rendered unusably sluggish.  The French watchdog that fined the company stated that Apple committed a “deceptive commercial practice by omission”.

Another controversy surrounding Apple concerns the inability of consumers to repair their own iProducts.  Kyle Weins of iFixit, a smartphone repair blog, suggested that Apple and other companies are basically renting rather than selling devices to consumers. In turn, the system relies on phones as a cash cow that gives reliably every year.  

Moreover, consumers have no way to replace the battery at home when it begins to fail. Consequently, they must either purchase a whole new device or send the product back to Apple for a replacement battery. The officially-sanctioned process takes over a week and results in the smartphone’s storage being wiped clean.  

To complicate matters, there is no other way to change an Apple device’s battery without voiding the warranty.  In turn, buyers are almost completely prevented from having agency over their purchased products.

The iPod Shuffle is a representative example of Apple’s consumer schemes.  At only $49, it is the cheapest iDevice available.  Its battery is designed to last about 400 charges, or about a year of daily use.  When it is time for a replacement, users can ship it off to Apple and they will replace the battery:  for $49 plus a $6.95 shipping fee.  This “involuntary cycle” of repairs coincides curiously with Apple’s yearly release schedule of new products.

If consumers are not concerned with breaking the warranty, it is sometimes possible to change a battery at home.  Replacement batteries for iPhones retail for about $20.  Of course, Apple purchases its batteries at a wholesale price even lower than that.  

. . . .

Apple Store in New York. Photo credit: Phil Aicken

The Apple Shuffle

In recent years, many manufacturers, including Apple, have begun to actively discourage at-home repairs by making devices difficult to open:  removing screws and gluing components together.  Consumers have found that attempting to open a device to replace the battery leaves its electronics completely destroyed.  Because of this, most opt for the official repair channels.  In this scheme, Apple guarantees that they will make money, either from consumers sending their dead phones away for a battery replacement or from sales of completely new devices.  

This strategy, which assures profit on a regular timetable, has helped Apple maintain its record-setting profits year after year.  The company was the first to introduce the concept of planned obsolescence in the tech sector, and does not appear to be changing course.  Since, all of Apple’s peers have followed suit. Subsequently, the early demise of electronic devices has become another expected part of life.  

A Sinister History

Despite being a trailblazer in the tech world, Apple was certainly not the first company to implement planned obsolescence.  The idea was first pioneered in the early 20th century.  According to research by Laura Grattan, Alfred P. Sloan Jr. of General Motors proposed in 1924 that the company introduce design changes to its car models annually.  He hoped that this would convince consumers to replace their automobiles on his new schedule.   

The schema was a massive success.  Sloan’s idea had even further-reaching consequences:  it established the concept of the model-year in the auto industry, which remains with us today.  Not only did the company sell more units to meet the manufactured consumer demand for the new and shiny, it also crushed its competition in the process. Other, smaller car manufacturers could not keep up with the new pace of production, and GM soon rose to dominance in the industry.  

In the same year GM emerged as a top automobile behemoth, a group of major lightbulb manufacturers conspired to collectively reduce the life of all new bulbs produced.  The agreement, known as the Phoebus Cartel, mandated that all new light bulbs burn only 1,000 hours.  Previously, a standard bulb shone for 2,500 hours.  To get the same output as one old-style light bulb, consumers would need to more than double their purchase.  

The cartel’s decision was so profitable that soon all manufacturers began producing 1,000-hour bulbs, even those who were not originally involved.  While the 1,000-hour incandescent lightbulb is still standard, buyers today thankfully have other, longer-lasting options like fluorescent and LED bulbs.

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