Saturday, June 30, 2007

iPhone Spin Goes Round and Round

By JOE NOCERA
Talking Business
The New York Times
June 30, 2007

By Wednesday morning, the iPhone tom-toms were beating in earnest.

They’d been building for some time, even before Apple’s chief executive, Steven P. Jobs, announced at the Macworld conference that his company was months away from unleashing its “revolutionary” hand-held device, a machine that combined cellphone, music and Internet.

It sounds so prosaic when I phrase it like that, but on the Macworld stage that January morning, Mr. Jobs screened an iPhone demo, and it was dazzling — so beautiful and elegant it could have been designed by the gods. Who had ever seen such a gorgeous screen? Or such amazing functionality in so slim a package? Or so many sweet new touches?

Yesterday evening, the “Jesus phone,” as some technology bloggers call it, finally went on sale, with a hefty price tag of $499 or $599, depending on whether you buy a 4-gigabyte or an 8-gigabyte iPhone. But it was Wednesday, really, that the iPhone hype began building to its Jobs-orchestrated crescendo. That was the day the first reviews were published. There were only four of them, for Apple had allowed only four select reviewers, including Walter S. Mossberg of The Wall Street Journal and David Pogue of The New York Times, to take iPhone test drives.

They all raved. “A beautiful and breakthrough computer,” wrote Mr. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret, his Wall Street Journal aide de camp. “It does things no phone has ever done before,” wrote Mr. Pogue.

But Mr. Pogue also pointed out that “it lacks features found even on the most basic phones,” and in the course of his review he listed a number of drawbacks. It didn’t have voice dialing. AT&T’s cellular network was so slow for Internet access it made you long for dial-up. Mr. Mossberg wrote that you have to switch to a different keyboard view — the iPhone has two — every time you want to insert a comma or period. How annoying is that?

But deep in Mr. Pogue’s review came the paragraph that stopped me in my tracks. Pointing out that the iPhone, unique among cellphones, doesn’t have a removable battery, Mr. Pogue wrote: “Apple says the battery starts to lose capacity after 300 to 400 charges. Eventually, you’ll have to send the phone to Apple for battery replacement, much as you do now with an iPod, for a fee.”

Huh? That couldn’t be, could it? Did Apple really expect people to mail their iPhones to Apple HQ and wait for the company to return it with a new battery? It was bad enough that the company did that with the iPod — but a cellphone? Cellphones have become a critical part of daily life, something we can barely do without for an hour, much less days at a time. Surely, Mr. Jobs realized that.

Didn’t he?

When you do what I do for a living, this sort of question is usually pretty easy to clear up. You ring up a company spokesman, and get an answer. But at Apple, where according to Silicon Valley lore even the janitors have to sign nondisclosure agreements, there is no such thing as a straightforward answer. There is only spin.

“Apple will service every battery that needs to be replaced in an environmentally friendly matter,” said Steve Dowling, an Apple spokesman. He went on: “With up to 8 hours of talk time, 6 hours of Internet use, 7 hours of video playback or 24 hours of audio playback and more than 10 days of standby time, iPhone’s battery life is longer than any other smartphone.”

This response didn’t even attempt to answer the question I’d asked him, which was how Apple planned to service its batteries. But never mind. This is another Apple innovation: the robotic spokesman, who says only what he’s been programmed to say.

With Apple taking the position that the battery replacement issue was not something it needed to share with reporters — much less buyers of the iPhone — I went elsewhere in search of answers. I talked to design experts, battery wonks, technology geeks, and Mr. Mossberg of The Journal, the dean of technology reviewers.

One thing I wanted to know was why Apple had made a cellphone without a removable battery in the first place; it seemed like such an extreme act of consumer unfriendliness. If the iPod was any guide, batteries were inevitably going to run down. With most cellphones, when the battery has problems, you take it to a store, buy a new battery, let the salesman pop it in, and start using it again. Why wasn’t Apple willing to do that?

“It is about assured obsolescence,” said Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group, a technology consulting firm. “That is why they don’t have a replaceable battery in the iPod. But the problem here is that the iPhone will run out of battery life before the two-year service contract runs out.”

“Steve Jobs has always worshipped at the altar of closed systems,” mused Mark R. Anderson of Strategic News Service, a technology newsletter. “Go back to the original MacIntosh. To get into the Mac computer required factory-only tools.” He added, “I don’t think it serves the consumer.”

Larry Keeley, the president of the innovation and design firm Doblin Inc., had another theory.

“The real issue is that Steve and Jonathan Ive” — Apple’s design chief — “have decided to emphasize sexiness and a different basic experience” over such ho-hum consumer needs as a replaceable battery. He was convinced that it was primarily a design issue; indeed, he thinks Apple is using a lithium polymer battery in the iPhone, which can be stretched into different shapes — and thus can be tucked into an extremely thin space.

The iPhone, Mr. Keeley said, “has been designed with a lot of consumer sacrifice problems,” not just the battery but AT&T’s sluggish network, which Mr. Jobs chose because a faster network would — how’s this for circular logic? — drain the battery too fast.

On the other hand, those who have drunk from the iPhone Kool-Aid were not remotely bothered by the removable battery issue. My assumption was that if the battery does indeed last for 300 to 400 charges, it will probably start to lose its capacity in about a year, at least for heavy users. Of course the iPhone warranty also lasts a year, so if my calculation is right, it means that the batteries will need to be replaced just as the warranty runs out. Meaning that iPhone customers will have to pay for a new battery instead of getting it free — just like the iPod.

But maybe I’m being too conspiratorial. Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies, a well-respected technology consultant, told me, “I think this is much ado over nothing.” Yes, he said, there would be heavy users who had to recharge their iPhones every day, but most people would get two full years out of their batteries. So it would at least last as long as the service contract.

“All I can tell you,” Mr. Mossberg said, “is that 100 million people bought an iPod without a replaceable battery.” He quickly added, “If they had made it with a replaceable battery, it would have been better.”

Still, Mr. Mossberg was knocked out by what he has seen of the iPhone battery so far — “I watched ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’ which runs two and a half hours, three times! On a phone! Can you imagine doing that on a Treo?” (What I really can’t imagine is watching “Pirates of the Caribbean” three times.)

One of the battery experts I talked to, Robert L. Kanode, the chief executive of Valence Technology, a small company that is developing a new kind of lithium battery, said that the technology has advanced so much — as has the ability of companies like Apple to manage power inside their devices — that it was “perfectly possible that it will get you to two years.”

So maybe it will get two years. But let’s think about what that means. Those who are dismissive of the battery issue are saying, essentially, that when the two years are up, and the battery needs to be replaced, customers will purchase a new and improved iPhone instead. That’s why it is a nonissue for them — they are buying into the idea of assured obsolescence. If all you want is a new battery after two years — and don’t lust after whatever new phone gadget Mr. Jobs has come up with by then — then you’re just not with it.

Besides, don’t most cellphone users get a new phone within two years? The answer, of course, is yes. But most cellphone purchases are heavily discounted — costing $100 or less — and are tied to an extension of the service contract. Is Apple really going to play that game? I’m betting the answer is no. Buying a new iPhone is going to be an expensive proposition for the foreseeable future — which of course is great for Apple’s bottom line, but not so great for its customers.

And what about the people who have early battery problems? Or those who are such heavy users of their iPhone that they need a new battery after a year? The question remains, What are they supposed to do? Go without a cellphone while Apple is replacing the battery? From where I’m sitting, this is classic Apple behavior. It is perfectly happy to sell you the coolest $599 device you’ve ever seen. Just don’t expect them to be especially helpful when it runs into problems.

Then again, maybe there is a different explanation. Maybe Apple itself hasn’t figure out what to do about the battery replacement issue — and is avoiding admitting that by not saying anything. Yesterday morning, when I got into the office, I found a voice message from an Apple public relations hand named Jennifer Bowcock. Mr. Dowling was away, and she wanted to see if she could answer my battery questions.

So I asked her the same question I’d been asking Mr. Dowling: how was Apple going to handle battery replacement? “I’ll look into that and get back to you,” she said cheerily. I could hear someone standing next to her say: “We’re not talking about that.”

An hour later, she sent me an e-mail message. “You asked why the iPhone does not have a removable battery,” it began. “With up to 8 hours of talk time, 6 hours of internet use, 7 hours of video playback, 24 hours of audio playback and 10 days of standby time, iPhone’s battery life is longer than any other smartphone.”

I give up. Have a great launch, Mr. Jobs.

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