Design Decisions and Smartphone Batteries

When I wrote this, “The Unintended Consequences of a Single Design Decision” on Techpinions almost a year ago, I pointed out

Shorter battery life – Making phones and notebooks as thin as possible and then making them even thinner in each subsequent generation resulted in less volume for batteries. But because the one dimension that reduces a battery’s capacity most is its thickness, battery life of iPhones and MacBooks have suffered. Battery life of iPhones and the latest line of MacBook Pros are well below expectations and are one of the major user complaints. So much so, the battery indicator no longer displays time left. And, since a battery’s life is based on the number of charging cycles, smaller batteries need more recharging cycles, resulting in a shorter life.

Well now we have a new consequence, the need for Apple to throttle down the processor to prevent inadvertent shutdowns as the battery deteriorates. Clearly, this was a design compromise Apple engineers chose, rather than designing their phones to accommodate the deteriorating batteries. Product engineers are very familiar with the behavior of LiIon batteries. While Apple says the batteries deteriorate to 80% after 500 cycles, Samsung’s battery division, one of the world’s largest battery manufacturers, warranties their batteries to deteriorate no less than 70% after 300 cycles. It’s not clear whether Samsung is being cautious or Apple is being optimistic, but engineers know that the battery will reach close to 50% of its original capacity within 3 years with frequent use. And using smaller batteries than most Android phones, means the customer recharges their phones more frequently and they reach the 300 or 500 cycles more quickly than the competition. All because thinness was paramount to Apple.

Essentially, Apple chose to shorten the product’s useful life. While the life could be extended by replacing batteries, that was never a major consideration, because the cost and inconvenience are too high for many customers. And they never communicated that changing the batteries were a realistic option.

While we can debate whether Apple should have been more communicative, their message was one most of their users don’t want to hear, that products are now designed to last much less time than they used be. Design engineers in years past typically considered 5 years to be the useful life for consumer electronic products. All decisions were based around this number, including how many times the buttons would work, the device would charge, or the mechanical parts would work.

When engineers and marketing managers set out to define a new product, one of the first things they do is to make assumptions about how long the product is to last. From this latest incident, it seems apparent to me that Apple knowingly discarded the 5-year life rule and decided that 2 years was more appropriate.

While companies can do what they choose, with this decision they may have helped their bottom line for the short term, but few customers want to knowingly spend close to $1000 for a product that will need to be replaced in 2 years. And while Apple iPhones have held their value so trades-ins made good sense, the value of used iPhones, may have just suffered with this latest news.

So, the news behind the news is that an iPhone’s useful life is shorter than we all expected and what had been the standard for the industry. You could see how with the iPhone’s popularity and customer loyalty, shortening the life directly relates to more sales. While it may make sense from a financial basis, it seems like it’s not the right thing to do.

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Phil Baker

Phil Baker is a product development expert, author, and journalist covering consumer technology. He is the co-author with Neil Young of the forthcoming book, “To Feel the Music,” and the author of “From Concept to Consumer.” He’s a former columnist for the San Diego Transcript, and founder of Techsperts, Inc. You can follow him at

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