My Shocking Thoughts

by Dave Michels

I know Steve Jobs was legendary and of course worthy of our deepest respect, but he did make a few mistakes. Most of his mistakes, like the Apple Newton, are dismissed as ahead of their time. But he made one big mistake buried within the success of the iPhone – the non serviceable battery.

The iPhone was, to my knowledge, the first cell phone that did not have a consumer replaceable battery. The iPhone was immensely successful, so the world emulated it. Even models that do have serviceable batteries usually hide them. That is hinder rather than facilitate a quick swap. My Samsung has a replaceable battery, but no easy battery door like on my calculator (though it does manage to open every time I drop it). 

My last non smart phone was a Microsoft Mobile phone called the T-Mobile Dash. It had a full keyboard, was very thin, and did a decent job with Email. It’s biggest weakness, same as all personal gadgets today, was battery life. However, I did have a simple solution – a spare battery. Before the iPhone, spare batteries were reasonably common – some cell phone chargers even came with a slot for the spare battery. It’s been 7 years since the iPhone changed the world, but batteries still can’t make it through the day. Yet, spare batteries are now the exception.

I am sure Jobs had impeccable logic. He was known for wanting things simple – and perhaps he considered a battery replacement to be complex. He also didn’t like third party competition, and probably assumed battery technology would improve over time. He obviously nailed it on the iPhone, but that doesn’t mean everything was perfect.

Battery technology has improved over time – significantly, but it isn’t that noticeable because so have the power demands of our devices. From WSJ:

Moore’s law, the most famous theory in modern computing, posits that microprocessors roughly double in computing power every two years. But there’s no Moore’s law for batteries – in part because there’s a physical limit to the amount of power you can pack into a battery. It’s easy to make a computer chip smaller; it’s almost impossible to make a battery more dense than the ones we’re making today…Meanwhile, the devices we carry are getting more vampiric – with web browsing, Bluetooth connectivity, and power-hungry apps all sucking out battery life at unprecedented pace.

So what’s happened as a result of the power shortage? A whole new sub-industry of portable batteries designed to charge our batteries. People love their Mophies, and they are fine products – but they should not exist. I have three Mophie type devices – they are big and heavy, far heavier than a spare battery. They don’t fix my phone quickly like a spare battery, they trickle feed life into my device over a time. I have to put both devices and their umbilical cord in my pocket – stressing my connectors (and belt). Mophi now offers a $25 4″ fat cable to avoid tangling.

That’s all annoying, but here’s the part that really bothers me – these built-in non serviceable batteries turn electronics that should last a long time into disposable devices. Sure, you could get a new battery via factory servicing, but who services the items they are getting rid of? When I outgrow my electronics, I can usually find someone that hasn’t. Computers and technology should not be disposable – we have too much waste and ewaste as it is. At least when I bought a new phone or computer, I knew that someone would be getting my old stuff. In the case of my first tablet, the factory battery replacement cost and shipping is greater than the value of the device.

Batteries by their very nature are a consumable – they are the epitome of built-in obsolesce – and the built-in practice is becoming widespread. You can find built-in, glued or soldered batteries in new tablets including the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 and the Bose noise cancelling ear buds. It’s bad enough that the device can’t make it through the day, but now a dead device might not even make it on the plane. In some locations TSA needs to see the device turn on, or it could end up on the gadget no-fly list. Over the years, I’ve left nail clippers and pocket knives at TSA – will it be a tablet PC in the future?

The device makers will argue there isn’t much of a choice, but just like iPhone connectors are now on hotel alarm clocks, the ecosystem could easily emerge if they allowed it. All Apple or Samsung needs to do is create a standard battery that pops out of their devices. Think of the accessories and peripherals that would emerge: cases, docks, high capacity options, car adapters, alarm clocks, etc. Instead of carrying around a Mophie and a cable, we would have a spare battery in our pockets  and our devices would have a much longer useful life.