Dead iPod syndrome - no volt found?

Apple has come under fire for the iPod's power problems - but the Great Battery Rip-off is a much wider issue for the industry, and consumers

People power. It's a wonderful thing if you're boycotting a company that markets cigarettes to children, a fearsome anarchy if you're a paediatrician being lynched by an anti-paedophile mob who can't spell.

Add the Net to people power and the fur really flies. In the early days of the personal computer revolution, activists were wont to describe PCs as thought amplifiers -- all those things you could only dream about, such as writing a novel, designing a house, working out pi to five million decimal places, you could now do. The Net does the same for opinions: with a digital camera, movie software and a Web site you can turn a stale crumb of a whinge into a sumptuous banquet for millions.

Which is what happened when Casey and Van Neistat, two video-editing brothers from New York City, found their iPod batteries dead a mere eighteen months after purchase. In Manhattan, a working iPod is more important to life support than Neil Armstrong's electric rucksack ever was -- "Cupertino, we have a problem," said the brothers Neistat. "Sorry, lads," said tech support. "Out of warranty, and you can't replace it. Send it back with two hundred dollars in used bills and we'll fix it. Might as well buy a new one."

You or I would punch the air at this point and squeal like orgasmic rats: a cast-iron excuse to upgrade. Alas, not the Neistats. Retro is now so fashionable that a 'first generation iPod' is a bona-fide antique already. So they did what any reasonable person would do -- they made a movie of themselves flyposting anti-Apple agitprop all over the burg, slapped on a backing track of the tech support phone call that got their gander, and bunged it on the Web.

It had everything: the little people against the big corporation, the cutting edge of consumer action, and the coolest gizmo on the planet. It was hugely popular, and spread through the blogosphere at the speed of trite. The one thing missing was accuracy.

For while it was true that the feisty Neistats had been hard done by, they had fallen between the cracks. Apple had a much more sensible battery replacement policy ready to roll -- it just didn't expect the first lot of dead iPods to crop up quite so soon. The warranty ran out at a year; the batteries of the heaviest users might start to poop out at around two years. Well before that, Apple had a hundred-dollar fix in the works (and third parties could see you right for fifty). By the time the video version of J'Accuse hit the Web, the problem was fixed. (Not in Europe: we haven't had our iPods long enough for that.)

What's frustrating is that the dynamic duo do have a point.

Batteries in general are a rip-off of enormous proportions, and have been for many years. Pick up an AA battery at the supermarket: how much power is in it? Is the shop's own-brand battery better value than a Duracell? Everything else you buy is labelled by how much it contains: not so batteries.

They have their voltage printed on them, but that's not power -- power capacity is measured by how much current in milliamps the battery can deliver in an hour before going flat. So a Duracell battery could be marked as 2500 milliamps in an hour -- mAh -- while a Noname would be 1200 mAh: same voltage, different umph. One would last more than twice the other, But there's nothing on them to tell you this.

Why not? There's no reason -- rechargeable batteries have their capacity prominently displayed, and nobody is troubled by the fact. But the mass-market battery makers rely on people's lack of knowledge, and sell their wares on the back of fuzzy slogans rather than simple facts.

The problem is even worse with expensive gizmos. We have been taught to believe that when it comes to convenience -- fast charging, lightness, small size, flexible shapes -- lithium ion battery technology cannot be beaten. We have also been told that because LiIon cells are sensitive little chaps, they can't be sold like other, more mundane batteries: they have to be designed into equipment and come with special chargers. The result of these two pieces of dogma is that if you have a posh bit of kit, you'll have to buy special, customised replacement batteries at a very special price.

Yet neither is true -- or at least, not so thuddingly true that all else falls before it. Take one of the newer iPod batteries: your $50 buys 3.7 volts at 850 mAh. Is that good? Well, three AAA nickel metal hydride (NiMH) rechargeable batteries give you 3.6 volts at 800 mAh and cost around seven dollars the set. You know AAA batteries -- they're smaller than cigarettes. Could Apple's designers have shoehorned three of those into an iPod without compromising the attractive lines? Of course.

Or let's say that the first piece of dogma is right: that LiIon is so fabulous that nothing may stand before it. They need very careful handling otherwise they die, sometimes quite spectacularly -- so design chips into them that take care of all that. In a market of billions of pieces, we're talking pennies on the price. Result: batteries you can use in your iPod, your mobile phone, anything. Mass market, low price, replace them when you need to for a tenner. Simple.

But nobody in the business wants that. Apple has learned, as has Dell, HP, IBM and everyone else who makes laptops, posh portable music devices, phones, digital cameras and so on, that forcing people to make an expensive buying decision a year or two into the life of a product can only mean much more money for them. For us, it means a huge and growing pile of useless gadgets in the corner while that little transistor radio from 1968 chirps merrily away on the mantelpiece.

It doesn't have to be like this. It is a genuine scandal, and one that most certainly deserves a bigger airing. While Apple is by no means the only sinner, the industry as a whole is guilty: unlike an elderly iPod, in this case the charge sticks. Anyone for people power?

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