The Good Thing about the Apple Battery-Gate

by Dave Michels

The built-in, consumable battery on smartphones has always bothered me.

Batteries are consumables and computer hardware doesn’t have to be. The good thing about Apple’s battery fiasco is this may be the straw that results with owner-replaceable batteries becoming standard.

The problem is batteries are consumables, and computers are not. The manufacturers are effectively making disposable computers. I use the original Google Nexus 7 tablet (2012) as my alarm clock. It has a clock app that provides better features than most alarm clocks, but is confined to its dock. There’s plenty more potential uses cases for old devices if they were mobile.

The folks that bought the first generation iPhone were quick to buy the 2nd generation (and so on). This worked well because there was a line of family members and friends that wanted the older phone. Today, there’s no line. Everyone has a decent phone. Also, my old phone is still largely capable. I’d even say better than many phones on the market today, but it’s battery is shot.

I considered just replacing the battery on my old phone through aftermarket services. It’s not really a viable option for several reasons:

  1. The vendors want me to mail it in for service. 1-2 weeks without the phone is too long.
  2. The costs vary around $75. Seems silly to throw that much at a 2 year old phone.
  3. It’s really hard to buy quality batteries. Amazon appears to be full of counterfeit batteries, and performance varies wildly (based on comments).

You can Thank Steve Jobs

The non replaceable battery was a Jobs innovation. Like most battery-powered devices, Cell phones had replaceable batteries prior to the iPhone. Built-in obsolescence has always been a core tenet for Jobs, but it was a major divergence for the world. Every product has its faults, and the iPhone was so good we accepted the battery. Remember, the problem is how batteries age, there’s no problem when they are new.

Plus, Jobs could sell anything. Jobs sold the non-replaceable battery as a feature. He explained that in order to make room for “larger” batteries, he had to eliminate the baggage that came with replaceable batteries (such as compartments. covers, safe casings). At first, the Android camp poked fun at this, but then the realized:

  1. Built-in obsolescence drives sales.
  2. Few people were buying spare batteries on Android units that did have replaceable batteries.

So, the Android camp jumped on the same bandwagon. Today, there is not a single smartphone made (that I know of) that has a replaceable battery. Even worse, the concept has spread. My solar-powered Logitech keyboard I am using right now has a non replaceable battery. Same for my Kindle, my Nokia smart watch, and my Plantronics headphones. All of these devices will end up in the trash even though I have books as old as me, watches I worse in high school, and a pair of (wired) headphones I wore on my reel-to-reel. I still use the same HP 12C calculator I bought in 1987.

What’s Changed?

Everything above is old news. So, what’s changed?

  1. Smartphones have gone up in price. We are now paying over $1k for a premium phone. Such an investment should last longer, and premium phones should certainly last longer than non premium phones (they don’t).
  2. Studies predict that there will be 2.8 B smartphones in service by 2019. They are not longer a first world gadget.
  3. The tech curve is flattening. Tech obsolescence is no further than battery life.
  4. As Samsung demonstrated with its ill fated Note 7, lithium-ion batteries are dangerous. We should be able to remove/replace them.
  5. We are using are phones for more things faster than battery technology is progressing.
  6. We are buying/obtaining batteries anyway: separate battery chargers and mophi-like cases that change with each new model.

Battery Swaps Can Be Easy

I have a few remote controls that make changing batteries a stressful exercise. The cover on my DISH remote is my nemesis.

Not all batteries need covers. My old Motorola Star-Tac had a replaceable battery that was essentially the exterior of the phone. You can even have a small built-in Lion battery that prevents the phone from shutting down during a battery swap. Sure, that battery might wear-out, but with it just goes a feature, not the whole device.