Products’ Useful Lifespans Should Be Longer Than Their Batteries

Geoffrey Fowler, Washington Post:

But the $179 AirPods, Apple’s most successful new product in years, show longevity still isn’t a paramount concern. If you show up at an Apple Store with dead AirPod batteries, they’ll only sell you new ones. (Apple wouldn’t comment when I asked why.)

This is not exactly true. Apple offers what it calls “battery service” where it replaces affected AirPods and cases for $49 each, which is something I learned the last time Fowler wrote about this issue three years ago. The same policy is in place for Apple’s other models of AirPods, including the $549 AirPods Max model for which it charges $79 for battery service.

An embedded, irreplaceable battery makes a lot of sense in many products. It means devoting less space to connectors and hatches, and does not require designers to work around available battery formats. For the length of time the batteries are usable, it can make for much better products. People clearly agree — AirPods are so good that many people who never spent more than $20 or $30 on headphones before are spending hundreds of dollars on a set. But it limits a product’s lifespan to its sole consumable part, which seems silly if you think about it.

This issue is not Apple’s alone, but I think AirPods are a good place to start. After three years of use, my second-generation model is starting to need more frequent charging. It is time to replace it. But, though I enjoy having it in my life, I am struggling with the implications of going through products worth hundreds of dollars — especially given a likely better fit of the Pro model for my ears — every few years, especially since the hundred-dollar wired earbuds I bought a couple years before my AirPods are still working great.

It sure seems as though the things I like about AirPods may not be possible if the batteries were more easily swappable, but it is hard to know for sure. Would they last nearly as long? Could they be so compact? Is it possible to design AirPods around easily-obtainable batteries? I wish Apple would prioritize that sort of thing, as it does seem irresponsible to sell such a disposable product.

I like Fowler’s idea:

So let’s revive Neistat’s radical act of transparency and demand to know when gadgets are designed to die. If companies won’t come clean on their own, let’s require a label right there on the shelf that lists the battery recharge count and how much it costs to replace the battery. The Federal Trade Commission already has the power to require other labels on products — why not for batteries?

(The Neistat here is actually referring to two Neistats — Casey and Van — who vandalized iPod posters in 2003 in an attempt to notify people of its sealed battery.)

Would people make different choices if they knew how long they can expect the battery to last and how much it will cost to replace? I am not sure. Apple publishes a list of expected cycle counts for its Macs — one thousand charge cycles for every model for the past twelve years, in case you are wondering — but does not do the same for its other products (Update: I overlooked this page on Apple’s website where it says users can expect a thousand charge cycles from iPad and Apple Watch batteries, and just five hundred cycles from iPhone batteries. Thanks to Jason for the correction.).

I stand by the headline I gave this post: a product’s useful lifespan should exceed its most consumable component. When the battery in my AirPods finally dies, for real, all of the audio technology, the chips, and the radios will still be fully functional. It seems bizarre that all those components are at the mercy of a couple of cheap glued-in batteries. We should expect better.