The discussion about iPod batteries has entered the mainstream. You may recall posts on this blog a few weeks back about two brothers who took their complaint that Apple would not replace their worn out battery — saying the warranty had expired, and suggesting they buy a new iPod — public, via a video posted onto the net and public defacement of Apple billboards. I tried to get a comment from Apple at the time, but felt they had less of a case the more I looked at the story: It turned out that Apple did replace batteries (for $99, which would give you a refurbished iPod) or alternatively, you could do it yourself with third party batteries, saving yourself up to $40.
Now The Washington Post has written up the experience of the Neistat brothers, and presented it as an example of the disposability of electronics, and of irate consumers fighting back.
It’s a great piece. Trouble is, I don’t think the story is quite as simple as that. First off, there’s some suggestion the brothers haven’t been completely upfront. According to one academic who briefly hosted their video on his server, Dave Schroeder, there are some holes in their version: He says Apple began offering the replacement program nearly a week before the brothers’ website was registered (ipoddirtysecret.com, on November 20; Apple’s replacement program was announced on November 14). As Schroeder acknowledges in his letter to the Washington Post (posted at Slashdot), it was ‘coincidentally close’, but was before Apple had was aware of the brothers’ video. (The Post article says the Apple announced expanded warranties for new iPod owners to purchase for $59, and also introduced a new $99 battery-replacement mail-in service for others “days after the movie made the rounds” of websites like Schroeders. The Neistat brothers themselves are more cautious on their website, saying “After we finished production of the film, but not necessarily in response to it, Apple began offerring a battery replacement program for the iPod for a fee of $99 and an extended warranty for the ipod for $59”.)
But did the brothers know about this before they posted their video? Schroeder says yes, saying he agreed to post their video on condition the brothers post a link on the same site to the Apple replacement program, something which he says they never did. (Schroeder has kept a record of their communications here.) If this is true, I don’t see any way one can link the Neistat’s campaign with Apple’s decision to offer a refurbishing service.
But what about the allegation that Apple is building in obsolescence into what are already pricey gadgets, using batteries that die after 18 months and steering punters into replacing the whole unit for $400, while making it hard to replace the batteries without damaging the unit? not everyone agrees it’s hard to replace the battery: Here’s an example of one user who felt confident her mother could do it without help. But I have to say, I’ve fiddled around with my iPod a bit, trying to get the back off according to instructions, and would conclude that my mother wouldn’t enjoy doing it. It’s certainly tricky, and hard to do without scratching the iPod body.
My conclusion? I think Apple have been remiss in a) not introducing a refurbish program earlier, b) not making it easier to replace the batteries, and c) not immediately guiding the brothers to websites which sell do-it-yourself batteries. While the iPod is beautifully designed, I can’t really see a reason for not including screws in the casing.
But having said all that, I think we must be careful about guerrilla consumer actions such as those undertaken by the Neistat brothers. We may not not yet know the whole story (I’ve emailed both them and Apple asking for more information), but so far it seems that their campaign may have misled hundreds of thousands of users by not including, either in it or on websites where it was posted, information about alternatives to buying a new iPod. Consumer activism should not copy advertising. It should be informative, not deceptive.