Fifteen Consumer Electronics Design Mistakes
Mistake #14: The Entombed Battery
Device(s): iPods, iPhone
In some ways, one could hail Apple's decision to permanently build batteries into iPods as a stroke of genius. This allowed iPods to be smaller, sleeker, and more stylishly metal-cased than would be possible with a removable, user-serviceable battery. And with batteries out of reach of the consumer, no one would ever eat them accidentally.
But fast forward a few years to a time when you want to use your previously $400 iPod to play music. Oops! The battery's dead. If you were one of the early adopters that bought an iPod that isn't as thin as a piece of paper (and which cost $400), you might just be able to pry it open with specialized tools (trying not to scratch, dent, and bend the thing up in the process) and replace the battery with an aftermarket model. But if you're a more recent iPod customer, you might have trouble getting it open without completely destroying the unit. If that's the case, you have two choices: pay Apple $49-$79 dollars to replace the battery, or buy a new iPod.
Then there's the other problem. To date, Apple has sold over 240,000,000 members of the iPod series, all of which are designed with limited shelf life in mind. Who cares if the battery wears out, Apple presumably thinks, when the whole device is going to be obsolete in six months
Somebody cares. Last year's iPods have to end up somewhere - probably in the trash. In that way, iPods serve as expensive disposable media players. And as environmentalists have been trying to tell us for years, "disposable" usually means wasteful, which usually means that monumental mountains of discarded iPods could be detrimental to the environment.
Due to criticism of this very issue, Apple stepped up efforts in 2007 to both promote recycling of their old products and to build less toxic materials in their new ones. That effort should be commended, but sadly, Apple devices with sealed batteries are still creating premature obsolescence and needless waste. The problem has extended further than iPods now, with both iPhones and (somewhat more disturbingly) Mac laptops also adopting the sealed-battery design.
What Were They Thinking?
Keeping the battery out of the reach of users makes iPods sleeker, simpler, and more aesthetically pleasing all around. It means there are less opportunities for the consumer to accidentally screw up the product (insert the battery backwards, etc.), which results in cheaper technical support costs. It also means that Apple has fewer less-profitable products (think separate battery sales) to distribute and maintain.
Most importantly for Apple, the entombed battery builds planned obsolescence into the products, which encourages iPod users to buy the latest model when their old one craps out. These factors are all win-win for Apple, with very little advantage for the consumer.
But I'll admit, the consumer does see one very good upside to the built-in battery design decision: in the case of the iPhone and iPod touch, it allows Apple's products to be incredibly thin and lightweight properties that would likely suffer if the devices incorporated removable batteries.
In the case of the iPhone, consumers would probably rather have a sleeker, smaller device than a clunky one with a removable battery. This effect is no doubt partially responsible for the iPhone's incredible sales verses competing products with removable batteries. But I still think it's a worthy goal for Apple to figure out how to integrate a removable battery into such a small and sleek form factor. Think of it as a challenge, Apple. I'm sure your world-class industrial designers are up to it.
Mistake #15: DRM
Device(s): MP3 Players, Pseudo-Compact Discs
Digital Rights Management (DRM) is quite possibly the worst thing that's happened to consumers in the history of electronic media. In the quest to protect artistic works from illegal exploitation, content makers and distributors have severely inconvenienced the consumer. While not as much of a problem as it used to be (with most online music vendors now abandoning it), when DRM commonly straitjacketed our media, it was quite a headache.
The irony of DRM is that it never prevents true piracy. Determined pirates - the ones who actually steal from content companies and sell the goods on the black market - always get around any copy protection scheme humans can devise (unsurprisingly, they often acquire movies/music before it is DRM'd to begin with). There is no 100% hack proof version of copy protection short of locking the only copy of an artistic work in a sealed lead vault.
And so - as many critics of DRM argue - the type of piracy that DRM most often prevents is not actually a form piracy at all, but "fair use" rights of a casual consumer who wants to copy a work to another form of media for their own personal, private use.
Sometimes DRM even prevents a user from enjoying the media they bought in the first place. In a prominent example, there was a time when you could only play your purchased iTunes Music Store tracks on an iPod or in iTunes, and you'd need to log in with an official Apple iTunes account to make it happen.
Although Apple abandoned DRM for all songs it sells in early 2009, if you have a vast library of DRM'd music from before the switch, you'll still be locked in to Apple-authorized players unless you pay 30 cents a track to upgrade to DRM-free versions. That means if Apple's not around in 20 years and you don't upgrade, you wont be able to play that music on any new devices, computers, or installations of iTunes. That's a design mistake.
Apple DRM is bad enough. But what's even worse is when music companies try to apply DRM to the traditionally open CD audio format. In the case of Sony, their XCP copy protection scheme ended up consisting of a rootkit that installed itself on the listener's computer without permission. Malicious hackers realized this and exploited XCP's built-in subterfuge to hide malware on a user's system. Now that's what I call a design mistake. A huge one.
Meanwhile, every attempt at tighter DRM controls could very well be driving more and more users to illegal file sharing sites, where users can get the music and use it how they see fit-no strings attached.
What Were They Thinking?
Content providers are trying to protect their business. If your business is to sell access to music and someone else regularly distributes the same product for free, then it's a scary situation. It's so scary that content providers will try anything, and I mean anything, to prevent it from happening - even if it means suing their own customers, crippling a standardized format, or restricting fair use rights traditionally enjoyed by entertainment consumers.
And in the End...
Obviously this list only touches the tip of the iceberg when it comes to consumer electronics design mistakes. I'm sure that, given enough time, I could squeeze in a lot more design mistakes and make this list go on forever (Microsoft Zune, anyone?). But an infinitely long article isn't any fun. So please feel free to share your least favorite consumer electronics design mistakes in the comments below. I'd especially love to hear of mistakes pertaining to pre-1990s products.
More Design Mistakes stories by Benj Edwards:
Fifteen Consumer Electronics Design...