Alibi V.13 No.3 • Jan 15-21, 2004 

On Assignment

Apple's Dirty Secret

How two brothers and Internet chat rooms may have saved you $255

Jeff Drew

The movie starts with the sound of a ringing phone.

“Hello, Apple Care customer support,” a voice says.

“Yeah, I've had an iPod for 18 months,” a man answers. “And the battery is dead.”

“Well, the warranty on those runs out after a year,” the Apple employee says. “We can replace the battery for $255, but you'd be better off just buying a new [iPod] for that amount of money.”

Get one of the super-popular, ultra-trendy little white music players this holiday?

You might be surprised to know the high-tech wonders had a major battery defect that cost individual consumers hundreds of dollars to fix. Thanks in part to two brothers in New York and a growing Internet fan base, your iPod's battery may drain, but it won't drain your wallet along with it.

The homemade two-minute-long movie first appeared on the Internet three months ago and has generated buzz in both online chat rooms and newspapers across the country. Called “iPod's Dirty Secret,” the film is a sort of Apple anti-advertisement made by brothers Casey and Van Neistat. The two made the film after they found their iPod wasn't working and called Apple customer service to find out what to do.

The solution, as the brothers learn on the film, was costly and complicated. For reasons Apple doesn't explain, the lithium-ion polymer battery inside the iPod is glued to the inside of the gadget, which means removing the dead battery will damage the device. According to the Apple technical support representative, the cost to replace the entire iPod would be $225—$50 less than it costs to buy a new one. Just a few weeks ago, however, Apple changed their battery policy and now offers a replacement plan.

Apple's executive office confirmed via telephone that Apple previously did not repair or replace dead iPod batteries and that it was company policy to recommend the purchase of a new iPod when a battery fails.

Angered, the Neistats decided to protest by making a movie and publishing it on the Internet. The video, made using Mac editing software, criticizes what the brothers call the “dirty secret” of the iPod music player—the inability to replace its battery, which has a short life. The movie ends with one of the brothers trudging around New York City with a can of spray paint and a stencil, plastering the words “iPod's unreplaceable battery lasts only 18 months” on posters advertising the iPod.

The amateur effort caused lots of chatter online. The Neistats website, Ipodsdirtysecret.com, indicates it has had more than 200,000 visitors as of Wednesday, Dec. 31. Chat rooms devoted to the trendy music player began buzzing with talk of the same problem.

“Since I updated, my battery life has gone from nine hours to about three. Even worse if you leave it off for a day or two,” one person posted on MacFans.com.

Another, posting a message on the website ipodlounge.com described his or her battle to fix an iPod and warned others by saying, “You know how when you break your watch? And you go to put a new battery in it, but there's another problem, so you take it to the store and the salesperson rolls his eyes and says it would be cheaper to buy a new watch than get it fixed? That's exactly what's gonna happen to your iPod in a year-and-a-half when the battery dies.”

Other websites sprang up, offering to replace the iPod battery for as little as $49. They describe the process of dismantling the iPod and removing the battery, which involves wedging the machine apart with a screwdriver. Some websites took a MacGyver DIY approach and offered detailed instructions for building a new external battery out of materials such as an Altoids Mints tin and a handful of AA batteries.

The problem with the iPod battery lies in the type of battery used, Apple admits on their customer service website. The device's battery life diminishes with use, a common problem with many rechargeable batteries. But unlike standard disposable batteries such as ones made by Duracell and Energizer, rechargeable batteries used in high-tech gadgets are not standardized. Many iPod owners online report a battery life of 10 or 11 hours at purchase, dwindling to as little as a couple of hours after a year of use.

And while the guerrilla-style homemade film the Neistats made is just a small blip on the Internet, it has mobilized many iPod owners to complain. And Apple must have listened. Just weeks ago, the computer company changed their battery policy and now offers lifetime battery replacements for their iPods for $106 including shipping, according to Apple's customer service website.

The new policy comes at what could be the best possible time for consumers. Tens of thousands of iPods were expected to be sold this holiday season. Local realtors such as Circuit City and CompUSA say the lightweight, small white device was one of the most popular items in 2003. The New York Times Sunday Magazine devoted several pages to describing the greatness of the gadget, from the mechanics to the design, and even the “aura” of the device. Wired magazine declared the iPod the “hottest toy for 2003.” And the recent crackdowns on free music downloads mean some consumers are turning to Apple's iTunes store, where songs can be downloaded for 99 cents each. Apple is marketing the iPod as the perfect vehicle to which songs can be downloaded.

If you were one of the many people who received an iPod this year, you may have two motivated brothers in New York City to thank if your battery dies.

“We think Apple's new policy is fair,” Casey Neistat writes on the movie's website. “Our movie is a documentation of our experience.”