As many iPhone 6 owners have discovered, something is wrong with the battery. A bug or a defect causes the phone to crash dramatically: the power might plunge from 50% or 30% to 1% percent and other times the iPhone just shuts down altogether.
When I wrote about the issue in December, Apple pointed to a battery replacement program that covers a “small number” of iPhone 6s devices manufactured in late 2015. Apple also acknowledged a “small number” of other iPhones may likewise be affected.
After the story came out, I heard from dozens of readers who said they too are experiencing serious battery issues. Many also complained how Apple (AAPL) is giving them the runaround. This prompted me to take a deeper look and come to a conclusion: the iPhone battery issue is endemic, and there’s a strong legal and public relations case for Apple to expand its recall program.
The Source of the Battery Problem
I’m not an electrical engineer, but based on my research—and helpful tips from readers—here’s what appears to be going on.
First, though the battery problem seems to have arrived with the iOS 10.1.1 or 10.2 software update, the issue is primarily tied to hardware. According to reports in online Apple forums, the update appears to have instructed iPhones to protect the battery by shutting down during times of stress, such as when multiple apps are running. The reports suggest Apple introduced this process as a circuit breaker to prevent the sort of overheating or fires that affected millions of Samsung phones.
In its “battery replacement service” notice, Apple states only the following: “Apple has determined that a very small number of iPhone 6s devices may unexpectedly shut down. This is not a safety issue and only affects devices within a limited serial number range that were manufactured between September and October 2015.”
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Evidence of a hardware problem also comes from reports of those customers who went to Apple Stores and replaced their batteries. I’ve read about and heard directly from numerous customers who paid for replacements, and then discovered that the problem went away. No more sudden plunges in power or surprise phone shutdowns.
An IT technician approached me after I published my December article on the subject, describing his battery replacement experience at an Apple Store at the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan. The technician, who did not wish to be identified, said he brought his phone to a senior manager at the store and told him the battery was clearly defective. In response, the manager reportedly showed no surprise and supplied a new battery—even agreeing, eventually, to waive a $79 fee. The technician is sure that many of the Apple employees at the store are spending a good part of their day swapping out batteries.
Meanwhile, Quartz reports authorities in China have accused Apple of “failing to meet basic consumer needs for normal wireless communications,” and said the battery defect affects the whole range of iPhone 6 devices, including the iPhone 6 Plus, not just a “very small number” of 6s models. Calls for a recall are building in that country. Closer to home, another U.S. publication has decried “bugs that are destroying iPhone battery life.”
All of this, though, amounts to anecdotes and speculation. Only Apple can confirm its battery is defective or fully explain what is going on, but its public statements do not yet offer this level of detail. Whatever the case, it seems the company’s current line—about the charging problem affecting only “a small number of customers”—is malarkey. My theory: The defect is affecting millions of iPhone owners. That may be a “small number” in relation to hundreds of millions of these devices Apple sold last year—13 million alone in the first three days of the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus launch. But overall it’s a very big number.
After the December story appeared, my Twitter (TWTR) account lit up for days with messages from iPhone owners telling me they, too, had experienced shutdowns or sudden drops in power. Many also expressed frustration about how Apple had treated them. Here are three examples:
An Apple spokesperson, at the time of my December Fortune article, sent an email restating the company’s position about a “very small number” of phones. In response to a Fortune request for comment this week, including about whether the recall may be expanded, the company did not respond at all.
The company’s silence could mean Apple is still trying to get to the bottom of the battery issue. A Fortune reader named Chris, however, offered another more cynical explanation. A regular contributor to Apple community forums, where users offer each other help and tips, Chris (who asked me to withhold his last name) says he believes Apple knows it has a widespread problem but is basically waiting it out.
Here’s Chris’s theory in his own words (emphasis his):
“Apple most likely has already figured out the issue but it maintaining a favorable ambiguity: namely that the iOS might be the issue (so users cling on hope of a magical 10.3 resolution), and that some small number of users may have battery issues. The purpose is to avoid, at all cost, a major recall.”
There’s that “r-word” again: recall. But for Apple to actually embark on a broader recall of the iPhone 6, it likely needs a bigger incentive than scattered shouts from the Internet.
Is the iPhone a Dangerous Product?
Consumer recalls, in the case of products like cell phones, arise for two reasons. In some cases, a company may recall a product on its own accord—maybe because it contains a hazard, or maybe because it wants to maintain goodwill with its customer base. Or a recall may arise because a federal agency called the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission told a company to call back its product.
The agency is not going to get involved, however, if the product is just crummy. There has to be some sort of danger involved. The website Consumerist has a helpful example:
“If your pool noodle doesn’t float, well, that’s a crappy pool noodle and you should buy a better one next time. If your pool noodle leaches toxic or illegal chemicals into your pool and can cause rashes or illness, that’s a recall.”
So where does an iPhone 6, if its battery won’t hold a charge, fit into this scheme? Some might argue that a defective battery is just an inconvenient and that Apple and the consumer agency can simply say “tough luck—go buy a better phone.” But there’s another argument that the buggy iPhone is a hazard.
According to Norman Silber, a law professor at Hofstra and a Yale research scholar, the federal consumer agency relies on a handbook that lists three types of risks; A, B, or C. The first two are the most dangerous but the third one, “Class C Hazards,” applies when “moderate illness or injury is possible.” In all cases, there has to be some risk of physical injury—just a financial loss (such as having to shell out for a new iPhone battery) isn’t enough.
Does the iPhone 6 battery pose a physical rather than mere financial hazard? Maybe it does. Today’s consumers rely on their smartphones for a growing number of essential tasks, such as navigating or monitoring one’s health, and the iPhone’s sudden and unexpected shutdown could create real danger.
“In case of Apple suppose I have a navigation program like Waze running. Shutting it down suddenly could increase the risk of a car accident. Or imagine a program on my phone that my monitors heart rate or another precarious condition,” Silber said.
The consumer commission declined to comment on whether the iPhone’s battery problem could be classified as a Class C hazard.
Eyes on Apple
The legal case for an iPhone battery recall isn’t clear-cut, which could partly explain why Apple has not offered to replace a broader number of batteries. Nonetheless, the company is approaching a point where there’s a compelling public relations case for a recall.
The optics of Apple issuing a recall notice related to its flagship product wouldn’t be pretty, but neither is the alternative: Allowing potentially millions of customers to have a very un-Apple experience, while also refusing to even explain to them what’s going on.
The company’s refusal to buck up for battery replacements is also galling given the absurd size of its cash hoard, which stood at $237 billion in late October. In other words, Apple could replace every iPhone 6 battery on the planet—and throw in a free pony—without hurting its overall financial position.
But instead, the company appears intent on clinging to the position that its batteries are just fine, thank you very much, and to count on its loyal customers to play along. That loyalty, though, could be tested the longer this goes on.