Apple’s Missing Feature

September 10th, 2008

In talking with our Special Correspondent, David Biedny for this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, he presented a well-reasoned rant about a significant feature lacking in Apple hardware. Worse, this particular item can be found on competing music players, cell phones and PCs.

What am I talking about? Well, on the iPod and iPhone, a removable memory card. For Macs, a built-in card reader, so you don’t need an adaptor if you use different types for your digital cameras, camcorders and other gear with removable storage cards.

Now Consumer Reports, a publication that is only partly successful in handling personal computer reviews, always dings Apple for not including this feature. While I have considered this to be a needless extravagance in the past, I can see the wisdom behind it, and it’s cheap enough not to seriously damage Apple’s profit margins. After all, isn’t the Mac, as David says, “a media savvy computer”?

When it comes to removable media for a music player or mobile phone, Apple wants to sell you elegantly sealed boxes; well mostly. You can, for example, eject the SIM card on an iPhone, but that’s a necessity, since you may have to perform that swap if the card becomes defective or you switch numbers and/or carriers.

I suppose you can envision Steve Jobs — and his penchant for seamless perfection on such gear — being forced kicking and screaming into accepting the removable SIM card slot. But Jobs, or his design team, stopped there. You still can’t remove the battery either on those devices.

Either way, I think Apple is missing the boat here, as much as I’m sensitive to the design considerations that may limit the methods they can use to allow for popping out internal parts in an easy fashion. Of course, with over 73% of the music player market, it’s not as if Apple has any immediate threats to its dominance, and the product improvements come at a fairly steady pace.

As far as the iPhone is concerned, I rather suspect the technology is still a work in progress, witness the shaky rollout of the version 2.0 software. One hopes that the 2.1 update, due by the end of the week, will fix the most serious ills and enhance performance as promised. Early reports on the iPod touch 2.1 firmware are extremely promising, by the way.

Obviously Apple isn’t going to rejigger its products on my say-so, or on the basis of a few hundred or a few thousand customers clamoring for one feature or another. They have to be convinced it’s essential.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s not a problem. But, I can see where being able to eject a media card may be important to some of you, particularly when it comes to being able to swap playlists, photos and other content on the road, when you don’t have ready access to the computer that hosts the copy of iTunes that contains all this data.

When it comes to product configuration, Apple has made great strides towards miniaturization, so I’d think that a swappable card, rather than a hard wired one, will entail extra costs and perhaps cause them to enlarge the product slightly. Or find other ways to make things smaller.

However, I am fully confident in Apple’s abilities to handle this sort of thing.

As to the matter of battery swaps, I think that is the more critical issue for the iPhone. However well they lengthen the time the thing runs between charges, there will come a point where you may not have ready access to some sort of recharging method before you run out of juice.

What do you do then? Do you keep a spare iPhone around in case the first runs dry? Does Apple expect you to swap the SIM card in the field when necessary?

Yes, I know there are external adapters for your iPod that will provide many hours of additional current for the long flight or mountain climbing expedition. But that’s just a clumsy workaround for Apple’s lack of foresight.

Some of you might remind me that there are ways for you to remove the battery all by yourself, assuming you possess the proper tools, patience, and good manual dexterity. But that’s an extremely awkward and potentially hazardous solution. While it may upset Apple’s fashion sensibilities, being able to easily replace the iPhone’s battery is something that ought to be seriously considered for the next version.

I’m sure the case can be redesigned so it is nearly as smooth and free of seams as it is now, yet still allow for you to press a tiny internal button with a paper clip, for example, that will open the case and let you slide out the battery.

Sure third party battery replacement services may not appreciate such a development. On the other hand, there’s nothing to prevent them from selling you batteries that are equal or better than the ones Apple provides at a lower price. After all, if they bust your iPhone by mistake, they owe you a new one.

Or does anyone really care about any of this stuff?

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8 Responses to “Apple’s Missing Feature”

  1. shane blyth says:

    I use a charger, I have never needed to swap a battery in a laptop or phone in my life. Not once so I dont see it as an issue. As I said a charger is my friend and a juice pack if u are an iphone user does the out in the paddock with no power recharge if you want I suppose.
    I never use memory cards out of a device these days. All those slots extra on a PC are butt ugly and the times I have pulled a memory card out of a camera put them in a reader and then back again I have found it a pain and worst yet I have had problems with 2 memory cards going dub or needing to be reformatted for some bizarre reason doing this.
    I bought my girl friend a Sony A100 DSLR camera with a super fast sandisk 4gb memory card and have told her , leave the memory card in the camera and use the usb cable. I don’t want to wreck another expensive memory device.
    PS yes I am very careful to eject first and to wait a few seconds after it says ok pull the thing out.

  2. Kaleberg says:

    I’m not sure of how important removable memory cards and batteries are. Consider the Flip video cameras. The Ultra had removable batteries, but no removable memory card. This was actually considered a plus, because you could just flip out its USB connector and attach it to your computer with no memory card adapter needed. Their new video camera, the Mino or Mineo or something like that, has rechargeable batteries that cannot be removed without prying open the case. It doesn’t seem to have hurt their business.

    I suppose it’s like cars. In the old days it was easy to find one’s way around the engine compartment. There were the spark plugs, there was the distributor, there was the battery and so on. I used to spend a lot of time with the hood up poking around in there. I looked inside my latest car’s engine compartment for the first time recently, and I was hard pressed to find the spark plugs. Luckily, I almost never need to look under the hood anymore. My car just works.

    I think people would rather have devices with enough charge time and enough storage rather than devices with easy to change batteries and easy to swap storage. I agree that “enough” is subjective, but for a lot of us, Apple and Flip devices are good enough.

  3. John says:

    It used to be that “good enough” was Microsoft’s mantra, and that “good enough” wasn’t “good enough” for Apple.

    What happened to the Apple I knew?

  4. Kaleberg says:

    Actually Apple often went with good enough as well. The Apple II was good enough for business use, even if it didn’t even have lower case letters. The Macintosh was good enough for use by naive users, even if it didn’t have very much memory, a multi-finder or a hard disk drive. The iPod was good enough to take over the MP3 player market, even though it didn’t have a swappable battery.

    In the technology business, you can bit by too little or too late. If you come to market without enough, you usually vanish without a trace. If you come to the market too late, even if you have more than enough, you may lose to the product that already has enough.

    I agree that Apple often brings a lot more than enough to the table, but what Apple tends to bring is industrial design and good, usable software. Apple was never about hardware innovation. Their trick was always to assemble enough hardware for a new way of using computers, and then put together a full suite of software that made that hardware easy to use. This sometimes means you got more hardware than you might find on a cheaper PC. For example, Apple saw their machine as a media hub with iMovie, iTunes and iPhoto at the center. That meant a Mac would not have enough without Firewire for video cameras and USB interfaces for media players and cameras. They added iDvd, and that meant that no DVD burner was not enough, and so on. The software drove the hardware, not the other way around.

    That’s why I often say that Steve Jobs is a software person in a hardware person’s body.

  5. Al says:

    I’ve used many different cameras over the last couple of years. Most of them belonging to other people. I’ve downloaded their pictures on my MacBook Pro and e-mailed them for my friends. The USB cable works every time with no extra software no matter what camera you use.

    I use a PC a lot, as well, in my business. You need to download a different piece software for each camera, in order to use the USB cable for download. A card reader is a must on a Windows PC using multiple cameras but it is not needed at all on a Mac.

    Next you’ll want us all to have floppy drives or some such thing. Macs made them useless as well.

  6. David says:

    The VP of sales at my company drains 2 batteries a day while on the road with his Motorola Q phone, but in my experience such people are only a small minority of customers. Apple strives to be a mainstream player and sell items that “most” people want.

    I must be one of the only Mac users who pulls his SD cards out of his camera instead of using the USB cable. It’s an old habit from my old digital camera because it only had USB 1.1 and one of those ridiculously small Li-ion battery packs that would be half drained after such an exercise. I made sure my next camera used standard AA batteries, but never gave up the habit of popping out the SD card. After reading the comments about damaged memory cards I think I’ll dig out that micro USB cable.

  7. Brett says:

    I’m not sure how other cell phones and music players manage the use of removable/interchangeable memory cards, but I have no doubt that supporting this feature at run-time requires a more complex user interface and presents host of usability issues that Apple would prefer to avoid.

    Currently iPhone and iPod users don’t need to be concerned about where their data is (it’s either in the device or not). Once you introduce memory cards, it becomes a game of juggling.

    It would be nice, however, if Apple allowed users to extend memory capacity — even if it required a full reset and sync after changing the memory configuration.

  8. Tom says:

    I’ve never had problems with memory cards (or other flash memory devices) becoming corrupt, whether I do it the right way or not, although I always wait until I’m done saving or copying.

    I really like being able to not use a USB cable for cameras (etc.).

    Don’t know about media players.

    Dell XPS m1530
    Inspiron e1505

    (both have card-readers)

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