Apple recalls laptop batteries

1.8 million batteries used in some iBook and PowerBook models are being recalled after Apple received several reports of laptops overheating
Written by Tom Krazit, Contributor and  Ina Fried, Contributor

Apple Computer is recalling 1.8 million batteries that use Sony's battery cell technology, it announced on Thursday.

The Mac maker's recall, while not as large as Dell's historic recall last week, affects users of its iBook G4 and PowerBook G4 laptop models sold between October 2003 and August 2006, according to the US Consumer Products Safety Commission. Users are advised to remove the batteries immediately and store them in a safe place.

Additional information can be found by calling 001-800-275-2273 or visiting an Apple Web page for the recall.

The recall involves 1.1 million batteries sold in the United States and an additional 700,000 sold overseas online and through retail stores and resellers.

Apple said it has got nine reports of batteries overheating, including two cases in which users reported minor burns and property damage. However, it says no serious injuries have been reported.

"These lithium ion batteries can overheat, posing a fire hazard to consumers," the Consumer Product Safety Commission said in a press release on Thursday.

Last week, Dell announced a recall of 4.1 million batteries, the largest recall in the history of the consumer electronics industry. Dell's batteries used cells manufactured by Sony that could potentially short-circuit and cause a fire, even if the notebook is off.

Other notebook manufacturers use Sony's battery cell technology in their products, but several said last week that they had not seen the same level of incidents involving their notebooks that Dell had. A Kansas City television station reported on Wednesday, however, that a Sony user's battery caught fire, and a CNET News.com reader this week reported a similar incident with a smoking battery on a Sony laptop.

An Apple representative said the company does not expect the recall to have a material financial impact on the company. "We discovered that some Sony batteries in previous models of Power PC-based PowerBooks and iBooks do not meet Apple's standards for safety and performance," company spokesman Steve Dowling said. "None of Apple's Intel-based laptops are affected."

Sony confirmed that Apple's batteries are using the same faulty battery cells that were used in Dell's batteries. Different notebook makers use slightly different configurations of battery cells and battery packs, but both Dell and Apple used the same basic cell that can be prone to short circuits in rare cases, said Rick Clancy, a Sony spokesman.

Fortunately for Sony, the company believes that it is done replacing bad battery cells. "We're anticipating no further recalls of battery packs using these particular cells," Clancy said.

But the company will take a financial hit from the combined impact of the Dell and Apple recalls. Like with Dell, Sony plans to offer financial support to Apple's recall effort, Clancy said. The total cost of the Dell and Apple recalls could fall between 20 billion and 30 billion yen, or $172 million to $258 million, Sony said in a statement.

Endpoint Technologies Associates analyst Roger Kay said that with Sony's help, the financial costs of the recalls may not be material to Apple or Dell but that it's still a blow to both companies.

"To have a recall is a hit," Kay said. "Part of the brand value is quality."

Kay estimated that the cost of the Dell recall would be about $200 million if everyone affected sent their batteries back. However, a return ratio of 10 percent to 25 percent is more typical with such recalls, he said. The total costs of the recall include the cost of new batteries, the shipping costs to replace them and the cost of letting consumers know about the recall.

"The question is who shoulders the cost," Kay said. "We're sure that Sony is at least shouldering the battery cost and maybe some of the other costs."

Sony changed its manufacturing process for battery cells earlier this year, a representative said last week. The problems stem from small pieces of metal that were dislodged in the manufacturing process. Over time, those pieces of metal can potentially work their way through insulating material that separates the electrodes in a battery cell and causes electricity to flow uncontrolled from one electrode to another. This produces a great deal of heat and can cause a fire.

As have other computer makers, Apple has had to recall batteries in the past. In May 2005, the company recalled 128,000 batteries used in its PowerBook G4 and iBook G4 laptops.

IDC analyst Richard Shim said the battery issue is an industrywide concern, particularly given that notebook sales are driving the growth in the computer business. Desktop sales in the United States have dropped 5 percent this year, while notebook sales are up nearly 25 percent, largely through growth in sales to consumers.

"This raises the hackles of any consumer notebook buyer," Shim said. "Those are the guys that are driving growth, and the notebook market is driving growth for the PC industry right now."

One possible aid to the situation, he said, would be some kind of standard for notebook batteries. "It would certainly make the lives of consumers a lot easier, from a convenience and from a safety standpoint," Shim said.

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