SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) - A new class action claims Apple intentionally disabled its FaceTime video-calling service for millions of early-model iPhone users as part of a scheme to save the company money.
Lead plaintiff Christina Grace sued the iPhone maker in federal court on Thursday, claiming the tech giant manufactured a "FaceTime break" in April 2014 that made the service inoperable for those not running the newer iOS 7 operating system.
Apple had found a cheaper way to relay video calls on iOS 7 after it lost a patent suit in 2012, which had forced it to spend millions of dollars each month relaying FaceTime calls through a costlier method, according to the lawsuit.
"Rather than revealing the truth about the cause and impetus of the FaceTime break, Apple claimed that FaceTime had suffered a 'bug,' and that to regain the ability to use FaceTime, users needed to transition their device to iOS 7," the 36-page complaint states.
Grace says internal Apple emails "eliminate any doubt" that the company intentionally "broke" the service as part of a scheme to save money.
Prior to November 2012, nearly all FaceTime calls were connected through a peer-to-peer method. But that changed on Nov. 7, 2012, when a jury found Apple's peer-to-peer method infringed on patents held by Virnet X Inc., according to Grace's complaint.
Shifting all FaceTime calls to the relay method was costing Apple millions of dollars each month in server costs. That's why it devised a new peer-to-peer method that could only work on its new iOS 7 operating system, according to the suit.
Grace claims Apple engineers caused a digital certificate needed to run FaceTime on iOS 6 to prematurely expire on April 16, 2014, effectively disabling the video calling service for iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S users not running the new operating system.
Installing iOS 7 was problematic for millions of iPhone users, Grace says, because the new system was essentially incompatible with older devices.
"For iPhone4 and iPhone 4S users, for example, the coerced move to iOS 7 subjected their devices to slowness, system crashes, erratic behavior and/or the elimination of their ability to use critical functions on their iPhone," the complaint states.
Grace says Apple ignored the warnings of a former Apple manager, who sent emails voicing concerns about the move and its implications. His warnings "fell on deaf ears," the plaintiff says.
The iPhone 4, launched in June 2010, was the first model to offer the FaceTime video calling feature, and the new capability was heavily emphasized in Apple's marketing and advertising campaigns, according to the lawsuit.
The complaint features screenshots from ads of people communicating via FaceTime, and cites Apple's advertising slogan of "FaceTime - just one more thing that makes an iPhone an iPhone."
"In a disturbing juxtaposition to Apple's marketing campaigns that highlighted the life-changing importance of FaceTime to separated families, deployed soldiers, hearing-impaired individuals and countless others, Apple advanced its financial interests by intentionally breaking FaceTime for millions of its users," Grace says in her complaint.
After a "swift and substantial" negative public response to the "FaceTime break," Grace says Apple lied about its motives for disabling FaceTime and blamed the problem on a "bug."
The lawsuit claims Apple's scheme essentially forced millions of iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S users to stop using Facetime or transition to a new operating system and "accept the significant reduction in functionality" that would result.
Grace accuses Apple of trespass to chattels, which holds parties liable for interfering with one's lawful possession of property, and violating California's unfair competition law.
She seeks class certification, restitution, disgorgement and punitive damages. She is represented by Allan Steyer of Steyer Lowenthal Boodrookas Alvarez & Smith of San Francisco.
Apple's press team did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment Friday morning.