Hey, remember when every single mobile phone had a removable battery? One European Union proposal could see a return to phones with a pop-out battery, but it's not a move that major phone manufacturers, including Apple are likely to take kindly to. As with all plans of this type, though, there are some definite upsides and downsides to the scheme.
As MacRumors reports, the European Union is apparently mulling over plans to make the inclusion of a mandatory user-removable battery a condition of selling phones within the powerful trading block of countries.
Now, the plans are far from confirmed – MacRumor's source is ultimately a Dutch language financial newspaper – and could be subject to significant change before they actually start the long process of becoming an EU mandate.
Still, with the EU recently winning out over Apple over plans to mandate a single universal cable connector (most likely USB C), maybe it's feeling bold enough to try to force its way with removable batteries too.
There's little doubt that Apple would fight back, and it wouldn't be alone, as the proposal would affect every Android phone too. But would it ultimately be a good or bad thing for consumers? It depends on what you want out of a phone.
The upsides of a mandated removable battery
We'd get removable battery phones everywhere
The EU market is huge, and no phone maker is going to want to forego that kind of revenue if it can avoid it. Building out two designs, one with a removable battery and one without would add a load of cost to phone manufacturing, which nobody – especially Apple – would take on lightly. What would happen instead is that we'd return to the days of phones with removable batteries worldwide.
It's environmentally sound
Plenty of folks keep their phones for more than 2 years these days. This makes sense when you consider just how expensive phones, and especially the flagship type that Apple offers up actually cost.
The limiting factor there is nearly always the battery, and even Apple has gone to lengths to extend battery life by slowing down older iPhones where the realities of battery chemistry mean that they just don't pack as much power. Of course, being Apple, it did so without telling users this, but that's not the point here.
The desire to upgrade is often driven by that annoyance at always having to reach for a charger during the day. You can get battery replacements for mobile phones, including iPhones, but that involves handing over your phone to an Apple Genius, or that sketchy guy in the middle of the shopping centre. Or if you're particularly brave, risking it yourself.
Being able to pop in an entirely fresh battery and revitalise your iPhone could lead to a new lease of life for all of those phones. That means a whole lot less e-waste potentially heading to landfill, or more optimally to recycling into new devices
So how bad a problem is e-waste anyway? Mobile Muster's 2019 annual report states that it recycled some 84.1 tonnes of mobile phone components.
Which is a whole lot better than them ending up at the council tip, for sure, but there would be a substantial component of that 84.1 tonnes that could in fact be working phones today if it was easier to flip in a new battery.
You could take advantage of better battery technology
2020's crop of mobile phones tend towards batteries with capacities of around 4,000mAh. There are bigger and smaller batteries in some phones, but work with me here.
The most you're ever going to get out of that battery is 4,000mAh, and that's being optimistic.
Most batteries are produced within a tolerance, so even your brand-spanking-new phone with a 4,000mAh battery might only have 3,970mAh of actual capacity. That you're not likely to notice, but over time, the chemistry of Lithium Ion batteries degrades.
That's the best you're ever going to get out of that phone, period. While it would perhaps take some variable engineering, there's not too much stopping a potentially new battery pack of larger capacity but similar physical size being plonked into your phone down the track.
You'd go from a phone with maybe a day's battery life to one with capacity to spare, all for the cost of just a new battery. That's also leaving aside any future improvements in battery technology using new materials, too.
It may be safer to buy second-hand phones
There's always a risk with buying a second-hand phone, which you often accept because it's cheaper. Like buying a second-hand car, it can be hard to tell just how hard it's been ridden, and arguably even more so with a phone. You need to have and use a phone for at least a week to get a good picture of its battery performance, whereas that bargain clunker at the car yard will usually let you know it's been thrashed the moment you drive it more than a few metres.
The more obvious issues with second-hand phones such as cracked screens or dodgy charging ports would still remain, but a removable battery phone is one that you could fix yourself if you did end up with somebody else's lemon.
In Apple's case, its insistence on Apple Authorised repairers and parts would also be effectively broken, which could lead to cheaper battery "repairs" in that instance, and a removal of the issues if you do unwittingly buy an iPhone with a third party battery in it.
The downsides of a mandated removable battery
It might slow down innovation in the mobile phone space
Retooling to enable removable batteries would take focus away from new features and experiences, or at least divert resources that way. I fully expect that to be one of Apple's arguments against removable batteries, and it's not one that's without merit. Simply having to accommodate for having a removable battery might mean that other features weren't easily engineered, especially for newer form factors such as foldable phones.
Water resistance might take a serious hit
Buy a premium non-foldable phone in 2020, and it absolutely should have IP-rated water resistance.
Buy one with a removable battery, though, and getting that water resistance to work in a phone with a removable back is going to be a tougher affair.
Which is not to say that it's impossible. Samsung's Galaxy S5 – one of the company's last flagships with a removable battery – was IP67 rated for water resistance, so it can be done. But again, modifying designs to incorporate a removable battery and sealing up everything else takes space away from other components. Which leads neatly to the next potential problem…
Phones might get thicker again
There's not a lot of detail around the mooted EU proposal, but the words "user replaceable" do suggest that they would also have to be easily user accessible.
That presumably mandates a removable phone back, which would need clips or mechanisms to hold it into place. All of which would add bulk to any mobile phone.
While the race to thin also has its limitations – and in the case of iPhones has arguably led to some sub-par battery performance for specific models – we could see a return to more chunky designs if removable batteries once again become the norm.
It could lead to battery safety issues
Anyone remember the Samsung Galaxy Note7?
Samsung wishes it could forget its legendary exploding phone, laid low by faults in the battery cells that led to serious safety incidents, and more than a few darkly humorous memes back in 2016.
In the case of the Note7, it was an internal engineering issue, but the reality of allowing consumers full access to replacement batteries invites a level of risk, because not all batteries are engineered the same. Issues can affect the big players just as much as that flashing ad promising you a $1 replacement iPhone battery – although even there I wouldn't risk it – but consumer behaviour tends to lean towards bargains.
Cheaper tech is almost always built as cheaply as possible, and in the case of batteries that could relate to the chemistry in the battery, or the build quality of its cells, or the controlling circuitry built into some battery types. Possibly all 3 cases, and that could create safety issues for consumers who do take up those suspiciously cheap battery offers.
Apple's heavy handed tactics around battery replacements and iOS do create issues for consumers, but they also provide a level of guarantee in terms of safety. Apple can cut the prices on battery replacements any time it likes – as it did for months if you were an iPhone 6 owner back in 2018 but that's still with its own certified batteries.