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The Battery Recall: Now Apple and Dell Have Something in Common

You like to think that Apple and Dell have as much in common as the U.S. and Iran, but the PC business is a lot different. These days, many of the products you buy, from these and other PC makers, have lots of parts in common. Many are even built in the same factories in Asia.

Whether it’s memory, hard drives, Wi-Fi or other peripheral interface components, and now even processors and the associated chipsets, they may indeed sourced from the same companies. Talk about convergence.

When it comes to batteries for their note-books, for example, both Apple and Dell get parts from Sony. That ought to be a good thing, because Sony is supposed to be one of the good guys among electronics makers. However, the latest battery call, involving 1.8 million iBook and PowerBook batteries built between 2003 and 2006, appears to result from the very same defect that previously afflicted 4 million Dell note-books. It appears to result from tiny metal impurities inside the batteries that are supposed to prevent overheating. Apple reported nine such cases, and fortunately there were no serious injuries. In the case of Dell, there were a couple of reports of minor fires caused by this product defect.

Of course, we were all laughing at Dell, particularly because its sales and profits have nosedived, but it now appears they are innocent victims in this case, or at the very least, they are as guilty as Apple and other PC companies who used these Sony parts. Or we can place the blame squarely in Sony’s lap, which may be more apt.

This, of course, isn’t the first time, nor do I fear the last, where lithium-ion batteries overheated. Both Apple, Dell and other computer companies have had other recalls over the years. In fact, I recall when Apple released its first PowerBooks with PowerPC chips over a decade ago. I ordered one of them, the infamous 5300ce, about which the less said the better. The original intent was to use lithium-ion batteries, but in the wake of reports that a few early production units had overheating or smoldering batteries, they switched to nickel hydride, I believe. It worked well enough, but battery life was noticeably inferior.

More recently, there have been problems with some MacBook Pro batteries, where they won’t charge completely, fail or simply deform. Now to me deformation sounds like a heat-related issue, but Apple is simply replacing these batteries only if they’re needed. There’s no general recall. My 17-inch MacBook Pro hasn’t had any problems of this sort, and it’s possible the cause is different from the one that generated this general recall.

Now I should think that a company that makes products that can overheat or even cause fire should be more careful about testing process, and it’s also true that Sony has apparently adjusted its manufacturing procedures to eliminate this particular error.

But is there some generic problem with the lithium-ion process that can cause even the occasional failure of this sort? There are lots of possible answers, but maybe no solutions yet, except perhaps to standardize the manufacturing of these batteries, so that production lines don’t have to be changed constantly to meet different requirements.

In fact, Apple, Dell and other note-book makers are part of a new OEM Critical Components Committee, part of the IPC (Association Connecting Electronics Committee), which is supposed to work on not only a standard for note-book and handheld devices, but a set of safety specifications. This should, in theory, prevent situations of this sort from recurring.

It might even encourage work on new battery technologies that are not as susceptible to such serious sideeffects, and may even deliver longer life.

In the meantime, the best thing to do is check the page I’ve linked earlier in this article to see if your iBook or PowerBook is affected. If it is, contact Apple and make arrangements to for a battery exchange, and, for now, use your note-book’s AC adaptor, even if that proves inconvenient. Even though the number of overheating incidents is very small compared to the number of batteries in the field, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

And you don’t need to fear for much harm to Apple’s bottom line. It is expected that Sony is going to foot a fair part of the bill to fund the recall from both Apple and Dell.