U.S., French Officials Question Apple Over iPhone Battery Slowdowns

Apple Inc. is facing new questions from government officials in the U.S. and France about its handling of battery-related performance issues on iPhones, a sign that controversy over the problem continues despite the technology giant's apology last month.

On Tuesday, Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, pressed Apple for answers to a series of questions about how the company decided to throttle back iPhone processing performance in phones with older batteries.

In a letter to Chief Executive Tim Cook, a copy of which was viewed by The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Thune asked how Apple has tracked customer complaints of processing performance and if Apple has explored offering rebates to customers who paid full price for a battery replacement before the company offered discounted rates last month.

In France, the Paris prosecutor's office said it has opened an investigation into Apple for potential deception and "programmed obsolescence." The investigation -- which could lead to preliminary charges or be dropped -- will be run by the consumer protection agency that falls under the country's finance ministry, a spokesman for the office said Tuesday.

Apple has been under fire since mid-December from customers and analysts saying they had noticed a slowdown in the performance of older iPhones.

Apple then acknowledged publicly that its software slowed performance in iPhones as batteries aged to prevent the devices from automatically powering off.

The company in late December said that it wouldn't do anything to harm its customers' experience or shorten the life of its products, but it apologized for its handling of the issue and slashed the price of an iPhone battery replacement to $29 from $79, hoping to win back customer goodwill.

Apple didn't immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

"Apple's proposed solutions have prompted additional criticism from some customers, particularly its decision not to provide free replacement batteries," wrote Mr. Thune, who requested answers by Jan. 23.

The French investigation stems from a complaint filed in December by a French consumer group named Stop Programmed Obsolescence, or the French abbreviation HOP. The group alleged that Apple pressures customers to buy new phones by timing the release of new models with operating system upgrades that cause older ones to perform less well.

Apple says its decision to throttle performance back on some phones was necessary because batteries naturally lose capacity over time, and without its software fix, iPhones with older batteries can suddenly shut down when struggling to meet power demands. The throttling feature has been implemented across iPhone 6, 6s, SE and 7 models, the company says.

Government scrutiny of the practice comes amid complaints from some customers about the rollout of Apple's battery-replacement plan. Some customers have reported having to wait a week to schedule an appointment, while others voiced frustration that they showed up at an Apple Store for a scheduled replacement only to be told that the store was out of batteries.

At an Orlando-area store, John Terry, 53, arrived for a battery-replacement appointment and was told he would get an email when Apple had an iPhone 6 battery and he could return for a replacement.

"I would think they should have anticipated the demand they have had given the backlash, and they weren't prepared for it," said Mr. Terry, a marketing consultant.

Apple has said that winning back customers' trust is paramount, and it has created a website advising people to call Apple support before visiting a store for a battery replacement.

Analysts say the battery issues could have a significant financial impact for Apple. Barclay's said in a note last week that Apple could sell 16 million fewer iPhones this year, and lose $10.29 billion in revenue, because of customers choosing to replace batteries instead of their iPhones.

Mr. Terry said he plans to do that. He said if his phone can get faster for $30 that is much better than spending $1,000 on the new iPhone X.

"Not that I don't want the new phone anyway, but I'm not rushing out to do it," Mr. Terry said.

--Sam Schechner in Paris contributed to this article.

Write to Tripp Mickle at Tripp.Mickle@wsj.com and John D. McKinnon at john.mckinnon@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 09, 2018 20:37 ET (01:37 GMT)