Sizing Up The Notebook Battery Debacle

replace batteries in 1.8 million G4 notebooks

The Apple recall, which followed by a week a Dell recall of 4.1 million notebook batteries, brought new issues of logistics and vendor credibility to the fore.

Hewlett-Packard, Palo Alto, Calif., for its part, said it has no plans to recall notebook battery packs in conjunction with the Apple and Dell recalls.

"HP has been in contact with Sony, the manufacturer of the battery cells in question, and Sony has communicated that HP should not be impacted by these recalls," said HP in a prepared statement. "HP does not use Sony battery packs. However, like other manufacturers, HP does use some Sony 2.4 amp hour cells in HP-branded battery packs manufactured by third parties."

HP also said it utilizes a different battery charging design than Dell and a different battery protection system than Apple.

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Sam Haffar, president and co-CEO of Computex, a Houston-based HP solution provider, said the fact HP is not having battery problems is a testament to the company's engineering prowess.

"All Dell does is assemble stuff," Haffar said. "They are really a clone builder. HP is a manufacturer. They don't R&D. All of HP's systems go through rigorous testing. We are an HP service center and we have not seen any [notebook] failures at all."

Even with recalls totalling 5.9 million batteries, solution providers and industry analysts said they believed there was enough manufacturing capacity in place to avoid notebook battery shortages.

The Apple recall involves batteries from iBook G4s and PowerBook G4s in an action with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

All the Apple and Dell batteries in question had cells manufactured by Sony. That three of the industry's top-flight brands were now embroiled in this recall mess only fueled more questions and suggestions that the industry should work now to fix a segment with few standards and disastrous potential for errors.

"What I think this calls for is the need to establish some sort of standard, or some sort of means of regulating these batteries," said Richard Shim, a senior research analyst for IDC's Personal Computing program. "You've got a lot of energy in a very compact space used repeatedly in confined spaces, including airplanes. Every manufacturer has been tagged by this issue in the past. At what point does the industry say, 'We can't afford to have these black eyes any more.' " The headlines have been enough for an industry trade group, the IPC Association, to announce a "summit" for next month in San Jose, Calif., with some of its members including executives from Lenovo, Raleigh, N.C., and Dell, Round Rock, Texas, as part of an effort "to begin development of standards for the manufacture of lithium ion batteries for portable and handheld electronics."

Apple solution providers interviewed both before and after the recall announcement said they have had few, if any, customer complaints about bad batteries. Most complaints, they said, had more to do with issues such as whether the batteries were fully charging rather than serious safety issues.

The CPSC said Apple, Cupertino, Calif., had nine customers report serious overheating. A week earlier, the commission, in announcing Dell's recall, said several Dell customers had experienced overheating or notebooks catching fire as a result of the bad batteries.

Apple's recall comes several weeks after it had announced a separate, unrelated "battery exchange" program for its 15-inch MacBook Pro systems. There, Apple said batteries for those units were not up to the company's standards, but that there was no safety issue involved.

Additionally, weeks earlier, some Apple notebook customers began to post complaints, stories and photographs on the Internet of batteries for their systems that apparently overheated and bulged"in some cases so severely the bulging batteries bent the notebook frames.

An Apple spokeswoman refused to comment on the bulging battery issue. And a spokesman for the CPSC said Apple, under regulations that afford it to do so, asked the commission to provide no information about the bulging batteries but simply refer questions to the company.

With Apple and Dell replacing millions of batteries, while they are also building new notebooks, analysts weighed whether the recalls would result in a shortage. Both Shim of IDC and Steve Kleynhans, a vice president at Gartner Group, said they believe there is enough capacity for battery manufacturing to handle the crush.