The iPod Battery Controversy Hits The Mainstream

By | December 22, 2003

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 (, 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.

5 thoughts on “The iPod Battery Controversy Hits The Mainstream

  1. Rob

    I have just purchased 2 x 40 gb iPods at the Apple store in NYC. At no time was I offered the expanded warranty (which I would have taken and I intend to approach Apple about).

    I believe you can add a 4th point to your conclusion – Apple is remiss for not advising new iPod purchaser of the extended warranty. After all I have just spent >$1200 on the iPod’s plus accessories and I should have been told about this.

    It makes me think that the marketing team is the same one who was successful in taking an incredible computer to a very distant second place much like VHS and Beta tape technology. Sad!

  2. Joellyn Mumcian

    OK, my son’s 10 gig iPod (that I purchased, of course) died just last month, after a little more than one year. I hadn’t heard about the battery problems, so I took it in to the iPod store in my area, and the first thing they said was “Oh, there’s no way to fix it, you should just buy the new 15 gig. These batteries aren’t replaceable”. I said, “No way, I’ve only had it a year.” So they look up the warranty info and tell me, “Well, too bad, you’re a month too late, it’s expired. You should have bought the extended warranty.” No one at the store, (and there were at least 3 service persons behind the counter at the time)said ANYTHING to me about a battery replacement program, and this is over two months since one had been put into place. I think Apple should be ashamed of themselves for taking advantage of consumers this way.

  3. Tim

    Rob, I think you can purchase the $59 each extended warranty (Apple care) for the iPods at any time within a year that you purchased them.

    It’s unfortunate that you were not informed of this. However it looks like you can still take advantage of the extra year of coverage, since you purchased them so recently.

  4. Jebs House

    I’m not sure what the hold-up is… maybe they have re-thought their stance on how this is going to actually make the company any money. Or perhaps their lawyers pointed out the liability of providing agents a platform to stick their feet in their mouth. Whatever it is, it’s hardly something I’d claim as being “Well done”.


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