Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Battery That Wouldn't Budge

Last month, Apple's iPhone launched to a more-than-usual amount of ballyhoo.

This month, Apple faces a class-action suit over what is undoubtedly the iPhone's most controversial feature, or non-feature: the fact that its battery is sealed in place.

The sealed battery compartment makes the iPhone no different from the iPod, a product that has achieved enviable dominance over its category. But it does make the iPhone different from most other mobile phones. Because sending and receiving radio waves drains power quickly, mobile phone batteries get more of a workout, and therefore don't last as long, as MP3 player batteries do.

As a result, a whole generation of mobile phone addicts has become accustomed to opening the back, popping out the old battery that no longer holds a charge well, and popping in a new one in its place. It's simple enough, except the iPhone isn't made that way. The only way to change the battery is to send the whole phone to Apple and have them do it for you. If the phone is beyond its one-year warranty, the service costs about $80, plus another $29 if you want a loaner phone in the meanwhile.

The lawsuit turns on when and if Apple adequately warned customers about the non-changeable battery before the iPhone went on sale. But here's the question that interests me more: Why not have a user-changeable battery, and avoid all this fuss?

Apple itself isn't saying, but battery vendor ipodjuice.com claims that, as with the iPod, this was a design decision that allows the iPhone to be smaller and sleeker than it would be with a removable battery cover. Sounds reasonable, except we've all seen devices much smaller than the iPhone with removable battery covers, so the logic doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Besides, it's hard to see how a screw the size of a pencil point holding the battery cover in place could meaningfully add to the iPhone's weight or thickness.

I think the sealed battery cover reflects with Apple's overall marketing strategy, which centers on the Apple mystique. Part of that strategy is to deeply discourage customers from tinkering with Apple products in any way. (This philosophy is seen with scorn by geeks like Bill, for whom tinkering with things is what makes life worth living.) At the same time, Apple encourages its customers to keep in touch with Apple throughout the product's life, coming back for services, extra information, and anything else the company can offer to keep them connected.

The result of all this is to make owning Apple products something akin to belonging to a cult, a strategy that seems to be working. Last summer, my 13-year-old cousin Nathan came to visit us from Paris. He spent much of his time using the laptop we'd put in the guest room for him, so at the end of his visit, Bill offered to send it home with him as our gift. Alas, it was a Windows computer. "My father won't let anything but Apple products in the house," Nathan said sadly. Even though they really needed it: this family of five was stuck sharing a single computer.

Part of any good cult is mystery, and the less you can open something up and see what it looks like inside, the more mysterious it is. This is, I believe, the real reason for the sealed battery, and not some attempt to make a slimmer phone. Even something as simple as removing a battery can take on a mystical quality, and that mystical quality is what gives Apple a lot of its marketing power.

If you can get your customers to start acting like cult followers...well that's worth a dozen lawsuits, isn't it?

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