Apple's penchant for producing products with batteries that are not swappable by users brings up a really interesting point - should consumers blindly accept such a strategy?

One might argue, somewhat cynically of course, that sealed-in batteries are just a ploy for vendors to lock in replacement battery revenues by locking out third-party competition. And, since almost all batteries will fail after 500 to 1,000 recharge cycles or so, the revenues involved can be substantial.

On the other hand, non-removable batteries allow for sleek and sexy designs, and hard-core buyers of the iPhone and MacBook Air probably won't care one way or the other. After all, Apple's hugely popular iPods also have sealed-in batteries.

I'm not an iPod user (although everyone else in my family is), but there's a big difference between going without tunes for a while and not being able to make a call, check a spreadsheet or get on the Web. I'm having a hard time understanding, from the consumer's perspective, why having to take one's product to an Apple store - or, worse, mail it in - to get the battery replaced is a good idea.

Some have pointed out that this really isn't all that big a deal, given the relatively long talk time and run times of Apple devices, the relatively long (with proper care) life of the battery itself and, of course, the variety of external batteries available. These simply connect like a battery charger to supplement the internal battery. But there are a number of problems with this approach, including:

  • Secondary batteries tend to be expensive - US$300 is not uncommon, but some are less than $100. I did find one for the iPhone that runs off four AAA cells and costs about $29.
  • They tend to be large and fairly heavy, negating some of the benefits of the light, sleek device they power. There's more to carry and worry about.
  • The clunky/kludgey factor must be considered, along with the fundamental inconvenience of having to cable the power supply together.
  • They do not address the fact that the primary battery will still fail and that the user will be without the device for a period of time while it is repaired. Apple does offer a "loaner" program - but at an additional cost.
  • The cost of the replacement primary battery plus the labour involved could perhaps be as much as the cost of a secondary battery, meaning we're talking big bucks here just to stay on the air.

I must conclude, then, that there's not much justification for buying a device with a non-removable battery if that device is going to be operating on battery power much or certainly most of the time.

So, I won't buy an iPhone because there's a chance that the battery will go dead at the worst possible moment, leaving me high and dry, and I almost certainly will be without my iPhone while the battery is eventually being replaced. Ditto for the Air, at least until power outlets are common on airplanes, or until Apple or someone credible introduces a secondary battery that is small and inexpensive. I always carry a spare battery for my notebook today anyway, so the burden here would be acceptable given small and cheap.

By the way, there's already some high-level (read "governmental") pushback going on here, however, I don't think it's a proper function of government to argue for one product design over another; that's well outside the role government should have.

There's also been at least one lawsuit over this matter, which I think is largely baseless - but I'm not a lawyer. Buyers have an obligation to learn about what they're purchasing and consequently have no right to complain about the design after the sale.

Finally, one of my colleagues suggested that non-removable batteries might become the wave of the future as regulations are created to limit the effect of hazardous waste, which old batteries usually are. I think the answer here is cultural: Let's get into the habit of recycling our batteries, just like everything else these days.

We should be encouraging vendors to design products with swappable batteries by not buying products that lack this critical feature. Yes, vendors will lose some revenue as the third-party battery market drives prices lower - and my heart goes out to them and their shareholders, truly. But mobile information and communication products are much too important to be subject to what amounts to another form of closed-system thinking.

Craig J. Mathias is a principal at Farpoint Group, an advisory firm specialising in wireless networking and mobile computing. This article appeared in Computerworld.