Apple faces mounting complaints on iPhone battery

Officials in New York state asked Apple on Monday to change its iPhone design to allow consumers to replace their own batteries, just days after lawyers in Illinois filed a class-action lawsuit over the same complaint.

Apple charges customers a $79 fee to replace the iPhone battery, which is sealed inside the phone instead of being attached by a removable latch, like most other consumer electronics. The company also charges an additional $29 to rent the user a temporary replacement phone to use during the repair.

Apple should revamp those policies and set cheaper fees for the service, according to a letter sent to Apple CEO Steve Jobs by Mindy Bockstein, the chairperson of New York’s Consumer Protection Board.

“A high-end cell phone shouldn’t have to have low-end customer service,” Bockstein wrote. She also demanded that Apple reveal its contract terms more clearly in its stores and online sites.

Apple did not return calls for comment. An AT&T spokesman referred all battery questions to Apple. AT&T is the sole mobile-phone service provider for the iPhone.

The product has already helped to create new profit at Apple, although it launched just two days before the end of the company’s third quarter. Apple reported an $818 million profit for that term, and expects that revenue will continue to rise, with an estimated 1 million iPhones sold by the end of the next quarter.

The New York complaint was similar to a class-action lawsuit filed Thursday in the Circuit Court of Cook County, in Chicago. That suit charges both Apple and AT&T with hiding the battery replacement cost from customers until they had already purchased an iPhone. It also alleges that users will have to pay that charge once every year, since the iPhone battery is rated for 400 recharging cycles.

Apple has already issued a statement that the battery should last far longer than one year, since it will still be 80 percent effective after the 400th charge, and since the company counts a full charging cycle only when the battery has been run down to zero power, not for every partial charge.

However, Apple did not return calls for comment on the lawsuit filed in Illinois. Likewise, AT&T spokesman Michael Coe said his company does not comment on pending litigation.

If they decide to contest the lawsuit, the companies will face an experienced foe. The suit was filed by Larry D. Drury, a Chicago attorney who recently led the class-action lawsuit against James Frey, the author of A Million Little Pieces, a memoir promoted by Oprah Winfrey’s book club. Frey admitted fabricating parts of the book. Winfrey renounced her endorsement and some readers demanded their money back from the publisher. A settlement in the case allows book buyers to file for reimbursement.

Both the letter to Apple and the lawsuit echo another consumer complaint, submitted to Apple in June by the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a nonprofit advocacy group in California. The foundation said that Apple had already created controversy when it designed its popular iPod music player with an integrated battery, so the company has had ample time to find a more user-friendly design.

The iPod’s permanent battery has not generated many complaints because users are more willing to live without music than phone service, according to comments on several Apple blogs, and to the foundation’s letter.

“Unlike the iPod, the iPhone is obviously intended and marketed as a device to be utilized for a broad range of business-related purposes, and on a constant basis,” the letter said. “We can only assume that Apple and/or AT&T intend to provide a replacement battery at no charge for the actual life of the phone.”

Unless Apple changes its marketing or design strategies as a result of the mounting complaints, the foundation is bound to be disappointed that its assumption will prove wrong.

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