From the NY Times’ Talking Business column*:
What is it with Steven P. Jobs and batteries? On Friday, Apple’s new iPhone went on sale (for a mere $199; how does that make you early adopters feel who stood in line last year for the privilege of plunking down three times that amount? Just wondering.) In their reviews of the new device this week, both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal pointed out that the iPhone’s battery problem had gotten worse in the new iteration.
The original iPhone, you may recall, got “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,” to quote Apple’s public relations mantra. There were two catches, however. To get that long battery life, Apple had to forgo high speed wireless 3G, which chews up batteries. Second, if the battery did run down during the day, you couldn’t just swap it out for your backup battery, as you can with just about every other smartphone. The iPhone case was sealed tight. Looked cooler that way.
The new iPhone, of course, has wireless 3G — indeed, that appears to be the biggest improvement in the new model. And sure enough, it’s a battery-killer; according to The Journal reviewer, Walter S. Mossberg, the new iPhone battery lasts only about four and a half hours before it needs a new charge. Yet Apple still insists on sealing the case, thus preventing customers from using a spare battery when it runs down. For heavy cellphone users—and who isn’t these days?—the battery is going to need a charge by lunchtime. Good luck with that. Unless Apple does something about its battery problem, the iPhone will always be more a toy than a tool.
Or maybe people will just charge their phones more often. THE HORROR!!!!! At any rate, the 3G iPhone’s horrific battery life isn’t, in fact, any worse than the other 3G phones on the market (in most cases, I believe, it’s actually better). So the issue here isn’t Apple, it’s the industry as a whole. Better battery life is a worthy goal, but singling out Apple for what is really a industry-wide chipset problem is kind of silly.
Also, the lack of a replaceable battery isn’t just an “it looks cooler” choice. It allows Apple to use non-standard batteries, custom-fitted to whatever space the iPhone’s internal design allows. Designing for replaceable batteries requires a designer to make other concessions (size, weight, durability, cost, etc.) that might be more irritating.
To be honest, this is a reviewer’s problem more than a real life problem. Battery life is something easy to measure and easy to criticize (critics did the same thing with the iPod’s features for a long time–how’d that work out?), while user interface and hardware design are difficult to quantify (more on this from Daring Fireball). So everything that Apple excels at gets lost in the shuffle of a simple (and deceptive) feature checklist. Would you rather have an ugly, awkward, pain-in-the-ass phone that gets eight hours of battery life, or a really useful, intuitive, powerful handheld that gets four hours? I get the impression that most reviewers would recommend the former, but it’s safe to say that most consumers want the latter–and are happy to pay a premium for it.
All of that isn’t to say that the iPhone’s battery life isn’t annoying, but for 90% of people it really won’t be an issue. Those who really need more battery life will, no doubt, be able to buy external battery pack gizmos, just like they have been doing for the iPod for many years. And if battery life is more important than data speed, consumers can facilitate it: they can just turn off the 3G radio, which allows the device to use the EDGE network instead, with slower data but better battery life.
What this “problem” comes down to is that the iPhone is so much more useful than just about every other phone on the market that people will be glued to it all day long. Of course that uses more battery, but it’s really a symptom of Apple’s success. If your product’s biggest problem is that people like using it too much, I’d say you’re in the catbird seat.
* Incidentally, the column starts out, “If I were a blogger, these are some of the posts I would have written this week.” Which is kind of an odd start, but is actually much odder when you look at the bottom of the page and see: “Joe Nocera’s new blog, Executive Suite, can be found at nytimes.com/executivesuite.” Huh?