A lawsuit filed in California alleges that Apple has been deliberately misrepresenting the amount of available storage space on iPhones and iPads running iOS 8. The plaintiffs are claiming that “this case challenges storage capacity misrepresentations and omissions relating to use of Apple’s iOS 8 operating system… defendant fails to disclose to consumers that as much as 23.1% of the advertised storage capacity of the devices will be consumed by iOS 8 and unavailable for consumers when consumers purchase devices that have iOS 8 installed.”

Furthermore, the plaintiffs state “Defendant knows, but conceals and fails to disclose in its advertising, marketing or promotional materials, that the operating system and other pre-installed software consumes a substantial portion of the represented storage capacity of each of the Devices.” Allegedly this is part of a sneaky and calculated push by Apple to maneuver users into paying for iCloud storage options.

Figure A

As if that weren’t enough Snidely Whiplash, the suit states that “Apple fails to disclose that upgrading from iOS 7 to iOS 8 will cost a Device user between 600 MB and 1.3 GB of storage space — a result that no consumer could reasonably anticipate.”

The complaint is rather long and bitter (“Rather ironically, Apple touts iOS 8 as ‘The biggest iOS release ever.’ Of course, Apple is not referring to the literal size of iOS 8, which appears to be entirely undisclosed in its voluminous marketing materials extolling the purported virtues of iOS 8”), and the plaintiffs are seeking a class action status on the lawsuit and “disgorgement of profits received by Defendant as a result of said purchases, cost of suit, and attorneys’ fees, and injunction.”

On one level this suit sounds ridiculous, since obviously the operating system has to take up some room in order to provide the user with the ability to run apps and store data. After all, an automobile would be a lot bigger on the inside if not for that pesky steering wheel, dashboard, and engine, right? Well, the plaintiffs aren’t stating Apple promised all 16 GB of space would be available for use, only that the company didn’t specify to users how much would be consumed by the operating system.

Operating system overhead

First, let’s deal with the facts. Adrian Kingsley-Hughes on TechRepublic’s sister site ZDNet reported on the topic on January 2, 2015, providing a handy chart outlining the iOS 8 storage situation (Figure B).

Figure B

As we can see, there is a degree of storage overhead consumed by the operating system that is rendered unavailable to the user. It’s about a fifth of the space on an iPhone and nearly a quarter on an iPod.

Other players on the field

Microsoft underwent a similar lawsuit in November 2012 involving its Surface tablet. The basis of the lawsuit was that the Surface yielded much less free space. For the 64 GB model, users had only 46 GB of available storage. This is because the Surface came pre-loaded with apps like Word and Excel, along with Windows recovery tools and Windows RT, all of which took up space.

However, Microsoft made no secret of this situation (and neither did Apple). The company stated on its website that the Surface only came with a certain amount of free space and outlined why. Microsoft also gave advice on how to get more space, such as using SkyDrive, a microSD card, or an external USB drive. A federal judge granted Microsoft’s request for arbitration in early 2013, and the final outcome is unclear, but probably resulted in a pittance being paid out to the plaintiff.

Furthermore, AppleInsider makes a good point in stating that “Despite lawsuit, Apple’s iOS 8 storage is actually far more efficient than Google’s Android, Samsung’s Galaxy, Microsoft Windows.”

From the AppleInsider article “[The UK tech blog] ‘Which?’ noted that Apple’s 16GB iPhone 5c and iPhone 5s, for example, still left between 12.6GB and 12.2GB available to the user running iOS 7. That’s less than Apple’s latest 16GB iPhone 6 and 6 Plus models loaded with iOS 8, which the lawsuit condemns as leaving ‘just’ 12.7 to 13GB free.” Interestingly, the Samsung Galaxy S4 reportedly came in at the bottom of the list of available storage among 16 GB phones, with only 8.56 GB free.

Storage terms

Aside from the issue of space used by the operating system, Windows users are likely familiar with the phenomenon whereby a weird sort of “storage tax” reduces the amount of usable space. For instance, a 1 GB USB flash drive shows 972 MB free space, even when blank.

The reason for this is that Windows has always calculated hard drives as powers of 1024 (“gibi” or binary) while hard drive manufacturers use powers of 1000 (“giga” or decimal). However, you can convert a manufacturer’s stated hard disk capacity to the actual Windows formatted capacity by multiplying it by 0.93 if less than a terabyte or 0.91 if greater or equal to 1 terabyte. For instance, a 1 TB hard drive would be called a 910 GB hard drive instead if labeled in Windows storage terms.

The lawsuit filed against Apple discusses and acknowledges this as normal practice, but states that “Defendant advertises the Devices using the decimal definition gigabyte, or GB. Therefore the capacity of 8 GB Devices is advertised by Defendant as 8 billion bytes. The storage capacity of 16 GB devices is advertised as 16 billion bytes. In reality, nothing close to the advertised capacity of the Devices is available to end users. Indeed, the discrepancy between advertised and available capacity is substantial and beyond any possible reasonable expectation. For the Devices, the shortfall ranges from 18.1-23.1%.”

In other words, they say that Apple advertises in decimal (1 Gb = 1000 Mb) but displays in binary (1 GB = 1073 Mb) as further evidence of sneaky practices.

Strategies to reduce waste

Ultimately, there’s really not much to be done to reduce the footprint an operating system leaves on your storage space. Standard tips to reduce wasted space on your iOS device include:

  • Go to Settings| General | Usage | Storage to look at what’s in use and then remove any apps you don’t need.
  • Remove old email, text messages, and other local data that is no longer necessary.
  • Move photos and videos to your main computer (if applicable) to get them off your device.
  • Put your data on Dropbox and access it as needed so save local storage.

Looking down the road

I’m not a lawyer, but I don’t believe this case has much merit (frankly, the plaintiffs will be lucky if it goes to arbitration for settlement), but I do think it poses some interesting concepts regarding storage and how it’s used by devices — as well as what to expect. The entire lawsuit is 18 pages and can be reviewed here.