tech, simplified.

An iPhone Unexpected Shutdown Story

Technology has this habit of working great until you really need it to work—at which time it casually decides to take the day off and forget how to do what you need. Or so it seems.

Batteries are perhaps the worst, today’s printers and annoying ink cartridges. They’re the one thing most likely to turn our gadgets into expensive paperweights. And last winter, my phone’s battery was doing just that.

We’d gone to Osaka, Japan, which at something around 0°C felt rather cold to our group of Bangkokians. After a red eye flight and a few false turns on the train, we’d finally gotten in the vicinity of our AirBNB. All we needed was Google Maps walking directions for that last 500m through the biting wind.

Which is exactly when my iPhone 6s+ battery decided it, too, didn’t care for the cold. Google Maps pulled up the directions, we set off walking, and I stopped to take a picture of manhole cover (which turned out to be the real world Pokémon, with uniquely beautiful ones popping up everywhere we went). Switch back to Maps for the next turn and... blackness. My iPhone had gone from a reasonably charge to dead in an instant.

That became a recurring theme that trip. Out of 6 people all with various iPhones (aside from one Huawei), mine was the only one that shut off randomly in the cold. The battery was generally ok, working as normal in warmer weather. I was the only one without a case, leading to the assumption that cases helped keep phones just enough warmer to survive. Perhaps—antidotally, this fall the same phone with a case fared fine in Chicago wind and rain, though that was never below freezing. All of us had seen phones with older batteries shut off randomly under 20% or so of charge—but since the battery worked fine out of the cold, that didn’t seem the same issue. My own pet theory was that batteries like people acclimate to climates, and mine was just used to the heat and humidity of Bangkok.

That was before iPhone battery issues were in the news—and while Samsung’s exploding batteries were still being warned about before flights. And once it came out that Apple was slowing down phone CPUs if the battery was dying, everyone who’d ever thought their phone magically felt slower after a new phone came out felt vindicated. After all, old batteries would just last less long—why slow the whole phone down if not for more nefarious purposed?

So here’s a data point on the shutdown side. It was crazy annoying, and basically meant my phone was useless right when we needed it most in the middle of getting directions. And Google Maps is resource intensive—note how much it heats up your phone—so it seems to make sense why that app would be the one that triggered the shutdowns.

There’s no perfect solution, but if there had been an option to slow the phone down and keep it from turning off, I’d have used it in a heartbeat.

The problem here is communication and control. Apple did a great job of communicating about the issue now after it hit the news, explaining battery chemistry and the tradeoffs involved. Cheaper iPhone battery replacements are a nice touch—one I hope Apple randomly decides to extend indefinitely, as unlikely as that is.

The problem is in the timing. People have certain expectations from their devices—that they’ll work reliably and not age unreasonably fast—and Apple, perhaps, is held to a higher standard with their device price and premium brand. Balancing that is tough—do you let the phone shut off randomly if the battery can’t give enough current, or do you slow the phone down so it keeps running albeit crippled? So own it. Communicate. Let customers know what’s going on, what to expect. Hide it in documentation, even, if you don’t want to draw too much attention to it—but work in public, and set appropriate expectations.

And, perhaps, let people have control. Low Power Mode is brilliant because it saves battery if you want it too. Bundling the slowdown with that might be reasonable—as would recommending low power mode at a far higher percentage if the battery’s dying.

There’s a lesson for the rest of us. All products have flaws. It’s inevitable, something anyone who makes any item must face. And our first inclination is to clam up and shy away from the issue. You’re holding it wrong, using it wrong, it’s better to not have that feature, we know what’s best, trust us. Maybe you the maker are right, maybe you do know best. Folks only want a faster horse, after all, not motored future. But your horseless carriage for all its bells and whistles will have issues, will require fixes and workarounds your users may not expect, will have something you overlooked until it becomes an issue.

The best thing you can do is pull back the curtain, break the spell, and let people know. Be honest. Document your product’s limitations. And perhaps go above and beyond in fixing things that are only partly your fault. It might hurt in the short term but will win you loyalty in spades over time.

Thoughts? @reply me on Twitter.