Apple has to be the most high-profile hardware manufacturer on the planet. Whatever it is that comes out of Cupertino is instantly put under intense scrutiny, and as a rule pundits are divided - some love Apple products, while others hate them. Me, I feel divided. Some Apple products fit in with my lifestyle perfectly, while others just don't light my fire. But one design aspect of Apple's latest product offerings bothers me greatly - and that's the gradual eradication of the user-replaceable battery.
The list of Apple products that don't feature a battery that the user can replace themselves (or at least do so simply) is growing. The iPod, the iPhone, and now the MacBook Air are all designed with an integrated battery that requires a trip back to the Apple mothership for replacement. That's fine for a device that you can afford to do without for a few days (for example, an iPod - while I might not like being without it for a few days, it's not critical), but for a device such as a cellphone or notebook, that might be a different matter.
Note: OK, before I end up fielding a tsunami of email, I know that the battery in the iPod is user-replaceable to a certain degree. The older iPods are actually quite easy to crack open and replacement parts are readily available. But the newer iPods and the iPhone seem to be a different animal and cracking these babies open without destroying the device might not be so simple.
Now, from a design perspective integrating a battery into a device makes sense. First off it's cheaper to manufacture because you don't need to worry about a battery compartment or building a separate battery. It also allows the product to be smaller because there's no battery compartment and the battery itself can be a raw pack without the need for a housing to be built into the package. It also makes setup easier for the end user because the unit comes ready assembled.
There are also other upsides to having a product with a battery that the user can't replace themselves - the battery acts as a built-in obsolescence time bomb. Once it starts to play up, the user is faced with the choice of paying to have the battery replaced or paying for a new product. That's a great way to ensure that you keep getting repeat business. Modern batteries are good for 500 recharges or so, which works out at about three years of normal use. The actual life of the product is likely to be much longer than this but the battery puts an artificial limit of the usable life of the device. The user then has a choice - spend $X on getting the battery replaced or $Y (where $Y > $X) on a replacement device.
Maybe I'm being old fashioned, but I really don't like this trend of fitting devices with batteries that the end user can't replace easily. On small, non-critical devices it's something I'm willing to put up with, but for items such as notebooks and cellphones I'm not yet willing to give up on being able to carry a spare battery. As batteries improve and the number of charging cycles we can get out of a single unit increases, there may come a day when I feel differently about this, but that day's not here yet.