How to make a greener Apple: Change the batteries, Steve

I read with some amusement an article published by BusinessWeek highlighting Apple's (AAPL) big plans to become a more green company. Apple CEO Steve Jobs pointed out in that article that his company was releasing more information on its total carbon footprint. That omission had earned Apple raspberries from the environmental community and low ratings in big green company rankings from the likes of Newsweek, among others. Jobs also argued strenuously the carbon-footprint rankings were missing a piece by leaving out the actual downstream carbon impact of the phones, computers and music players once they left the factory.

I couldn't agree with him more. Which is why I was so amused. The easiest way for Apple to reduce its carbon footprint would be to encourage customers to buy less hardware. Instead, they could pay for software, or so-called firmware upgrades, that would improve devices like iPods and iPhones. But Apple pushes for the opposite, driving customers to swap out old products for new ones every 18 months.
The company's engineers insist on making it nearly impossible to replace the batteries on iPhones and iPods. Doing so promotes the throwaway culture that lies at the heart of our greenhouse gas and global warming problems.

So here's a challenge for Apple, a new way to think different and green. How about figuring out the best ways to ensure that I can increase the comfortable lifespan of my iPhone and iPod while preserving your bottom line?

Bashing Apple's environmental cred has long been sport for treehuggers. It's not very difficult to do, considering the company's warm and fuzzy customer image (the placards in the stores intoning that Apple sells the "World's Greenest Line of Notebooks" certainly makes the Mac maker an easy target. In reality, Apple has done a lot of wonderful work to help the environment. Apple eliminated carcinogenic PVC in its packaging a decade ahead of its PC rivals.

Apple also stopped making CRT monitors well ahead of competition. And Apple has already phased out use of brominated flame retardants that have toxic properties and have shown up in increasing quantities in breast milk. Other PC makers plan to phase them out by the end of 2009. So raking Apple over the coals over carbon-footprint calculations is somewhat besides the point.

Rather, I see a much bigger problem in Apple's active encouragement of throwaway culture. To a point, this is the core underpinning of the consumer electronics segment, where ever faster and slicker devices drive customers to continually upgrade to the new, new thing and toss the old version onto the scrap heap. But Apple has made some egregiously bad choices that are text-book cases of how to needlessly encourage customers to buy more when upgrading the same should be fine.

Witness iPod batteries. Apple essentially owns the music player market with its ubiquitous iPod player, with a marketshare north of 70 percent. For some reason, Apple has decided to lock batteries into iPods in ways that make them difficult to replace. Yes, you can crack the case. But it's a far harder than swapping out battery units on other music devices. There is a similar situation with the iPhone. Once your battery is toast, you are out of luck.

Sure, you can pay $50 to $80 to get your iPod or iPhone battery changed -- even though the actual unit cost of the replacement battery is probably less than $5. But that extra cost encourages people to spend another hundred bucks more and buy, buy, buy a new, improved system with more memory and a longer battery life.

So if Apple wants to stay the most innovative consumer devices company on earth, it truly needs to think different. Really, really different. Figure out a way to make devices that have longer lifespans. Start by making the batteries easy to replace. But then take it a step further by making the components of the device increasingly modular and easy to swap out.

For example, if you settle on a standardized iPod chassis, then perhaps I could come in once every two years and buy a new flash memory drive with more capacity that can be easily snapped into the unit in place of the last one. Or maybe you could build a modular display system that might let me unsnap a dimmer, older display and replace it with a newer one.

I realize this is a massive engineering challenge. Component companies do not standardize form factors for most of their products. Apple has also used innovative ways to engineer more and more components into a smaller and smaller space, making it harder to support modular replacement batteries, memory or other things. Then again, a number of other handheld device companies have done a fine job at least with the batteries. Apple's chief smartphone competitor, Blackberry (RIMM), seems to have no problem building devices with easy to remove batteries.

Whatever the case and whatever the obstacles, this is a great opportunity for Apple to show its true colors. Rather than play along with the current status quo and engage in the same old meaningless debate, Apple should set a new paradigm and possibly create an entirely new industry standard for sustainable device construction. We could even set a target. Apple should aim to increase the average lifespan of its iPhones and iPods by 25 percent. Now that would really be a greener Apple.
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