'Batterygate': Apple's latest iPhone controversy?

Summary:Only weeks after the iPhone 4S launch, users are experiencing battery-related issues, thought to be linked to location support. Could 'Batterygate' be Apple's latest controversy?

Within a couple of weeks of last year's iPhone 4 launch, a significant number of users had noticed decreasing cell bars on their phone display if the handset was held in a particular way.

For Apple, It might be smartphone glitch déjà vu. Within a couple of weeks of the iPhone 4S launch, a large number of users have now noticed rapidly decreasing battery levels for no apparent reason.

There appears to be a running trend here.

(Modified from original -- Source: Apple)

Since the iPhone 4S was released, the Guardian questioned why the smartphone dropped 100 hours of standby time, in favour of better 3G talktime of its 2007 first-generation iPhone.

Apple remained quiet, refusing to offer an explanation as to why the iPhone 4S was 'losing' power.

The Guardian set about testing and examining the data, questioning whether it was a hardware-related 'bug' or that it could have even been the iOS 5 software itself -- with some developers saying the mobile operating system was "hefty on the battery".

Apple reportedly got in touch with a number of iPhone 4S users -- perhaps an unusual step for a company to make -- yet actions taken by the Cupertino giant which, as Steve Jobs reiterated during its 'Antennagate' press conference in July, may not surprise many of Apple's die-hard fans.

A senior Apple engineer "apologised" for the bug that he reportedly admitted to existing in the iPhone 4S, noting that they "aren't close to finding a fix".

In the space of only a few days, however, it appears a location services bug may be to blame; though, keen to stress the word "may".

The Guardian once again reported a possible issue relating to the location-based features in the smartphone, which detects a user's timezone based on physical location. The "Setting Time Zone" feature, according to CNET, searches for cell towers constantly rather than only occasionally.

Quoting Oliver Haslam on iDownload:

"It appears that iOS 5's GM release introduced a bug that causes the Setting Time Zone function to keep the location tracking circuitry running constantly, draining battery power considerably. [...] We have tested this method on four different iPhone 4s handsets, including an iPhone 4 and an iPhone 3GS. All have reported drastically improved battery life after switching 'Setting Time Zone' off."

Though the battery life 'issue' is far from the only bug in Apple's iOS 5 smartphone operating system, it does seem to be the most invasive and debilitating for users of the recently released handset.

From a pool of a few thousand to tens of millions in the space of a fortnight or two, it should come as no surprise that bugs and flaws will be discovered along the way. What appears to be a software bug will need to be fixed.

iOS "5.0.1" looms as an all but inevitable, necessary update to the recently released iOS 5 operating system. Depending on the prevalence of the issue, where data metrics collected by Apple will no doubt show -- should there be a press conference like Antennagate to address such issues, Apple may wait until other 'issues' can be rolled into the update.

Or, having said that, it may just appease the mass hysteria conjured up by journalists, bloggers and frantic customers and issue a sugar-pill-like patch, to at least calm the often overly-hyperactive media.

Historically, this should not necessarily be seen as Apple 'admitting guilt', no more so than any other company that produces software or hardware on a global level, which has to contend with a widening pool of real-life software testers.

We are all, after all, ongoing silent testers of software and devices. Apple and Microsoft, Google or any other company for that matter may "listen to its customers", but the user metrics and customer improvement metrics speak louder in mass than the voice of a few individuals as part of a focus group, for example.

Within days of Steve Jobs taking to the stage to greet press over the media-dubbed 'Antennagate', the Cupertino company released iOS 4.0.1 into the wild, to fix at least the software-side problems that encompassed the signal issue.

Mac OS X Lion is no different, with an incremental update within a few days of the revamped operating system going live. Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7 are no stranger to this, nor is any other operating system for desktop or mobile alike. In fact, I cannot think of a time whereby an operating system has not had post-launch updates rolled out to users' within say, a month after it was first released.

What could, however, make a stark difference between 'Antennagate' and a potential 'Batterygate' is whether the software is at fault, or whether the hardware is the root cause.

While car manufacturers worldwide scramble to recall their flock of vehicles to repair broken steering locks or braking mechanisms, Apple's dealings with Antennagate led to 'solutions' for a fix, rather than a recall of stock itself.

It had two options: offer some form of quick-fix to enable the device to bypass the issue of the natural hand-holding position -- natural to the most of us -- or offer a refund for those still not pleased. This in effect was Apple's handling of the stock-recall, should one wish to do so. Seeing as one does not often rest one's life in the hands of a smartphone per se, unlike a car, for example, Apple saw no need to recall the handsets.

It was a wise move, and it appeased the mass hysterics of frankly, the media. As part of this collective, I accept our innate flaws of wanting to reach the headlines. As Apple is a world leading company with public stock and shares, a recall would be at least in business sense, practically suicidal.

How the company will handle the situation will be interesting, as the first 'controversy' for the company to encounter in the post-Jobs era.

Sources:

Around the network:

Topics: Apple, Hardware, iPhone, Mobile OS, Mobility, Operating Systems

About

Zack Whittaker writes for ZDNet, CNET, and CBS News. He is based in New York City.

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