AMITIAE - Friday 21 June 2013

Cassandra - Honesty in Reporting: Third-Party Replacement Batteries for Macs

apple and chopsticks


By Graham K. Rogers


When I started seeing reports about problems with 3rd party replacement batteries for Apple's MacBook Pro on the internet this morning, I did not think much of it. After all, these were not Apple products and there is often an idea of "you get what you pay for" when it comes to accessories. Apple's products are not as cheap as others for a reason.

When Apple's PowerPC products first appeared I had a class in which I introduced students to the technology. As part of the class, I had the students run their hands over the edge of a cinema display to sense the difference. We still have this and it was in use up till last year as were the G4 Power Macs: still working after 10 years.

Cinema Display

As I carried on reading the overnight tech news, I also saw an article on the same battery problem in Huffington Post, but what drew me to it was the Tweet, "MacBook Pro recalled at Best Buy because it's on fire...but actually", which was sure to make users click on the link. The headline was not much better: "MacBook Pro Batteries Recalled At Best Buy Because Of Fire Risk". This (and that misleading Tweet) gave a slanted point of view. I looked deeper.

The article on Huffington Post cited as source AP (Associated Press), but the small amount of information available made it appear that the fault was with Apple batteries: the point that they were made by a Chinese company called ATG was not brought out enough.

A number of comments by readers also noted this and were critical, one took made the effort to include a link to the original source (see below) which shows a rather different story.

As a result I went back to some of the earlier sources I had seen, and I also went looking for some more:

  • The first story I had seen early Friday morning was from Michael Grothaus on TUAW - "Replacement MacBook batteries recalled due to fire hazard". The headline makes it clear that this is not original equipment, while the text draws heavily on the Consumer Product Safety Commission report, but corrects the point that these were for the MacBook Pro: they were for the older MacBook. This also has an image of the type of battery, with the ATG logo clearly visible.

  • On CNET, Dara Kerr also makes it clear in the headline (updated to use the word, "Replacement") and text that these are replacement equipment, not original; and the point that these are batteries from ATG is also used in a caption for an image of a MacBook Pro. The article also refers to the Commission and brings in additional information concerning risks from these types of batteries.

  • Both MacWorld and PCWorld Australia, carried similar articles from John Ribeiro. The headline was the same with both of these publications, but there were minor differences in the amount of information in each, but not with the main points: replacement; Consumer Product Safety Commission; and information about the ATG logo on both suspect batteries.

  • An odd interpretation of this comes from the suitably-named Adario Strange, whose headline confirms that the problem lies with "Third Party MacBook Batteries", but whose opening paragraph wants this to have a different interpretation:

    "Just one week after Apple's successful launch of several new pieces of hardware and software at WWDC, fans of the company's product line have suffered a rare black eye" [My italics].

    The rest of the article reports fairly accurately, but that opening paragraph is out of place. As this is 3rd party equipment and not available worldwide (as Apple's products are) this seems an odd interpretation: something out of nothing perhaps?

  • Showing that even partisan publications are not perfect, the headline from AppleInsider - "Best Buy recalls 5,100 third-party MacBook batteries for fire risk" - also fails to make clear that the problem is not Apple's but something caused by a 3rd party manufacturer. The sub-heading did have the point that this was not an Apple product, and the text also had basic details of this. This item also cited the price of the ATG battery as $50. Apple's replacement batteries are $129 in the US Store. These are not available in the Apple Store for Thailand.

Tracking down these sources was really easy: here I am in Bangkok, half-way round the world from Huffington Post, MacWorld, TUAW and the others, yet by entering a simple string (Consumer Product Safety Commission+battery+Best Buy+Apple) in a Google search, I can come up with all those sources and all those facts. I also came up with the original source for the information: the recall from The Consumer Product Safety Commission. That wasn't hard; was it?

The differences in reporting that seem to put Apple in a bad light by way of product problems (when the fault was with 3rd party accessories), reminded me of the Bloomberg story in mid-May that Philip Elmer-DeWitt called out for its doctored quote. That story by Tim Culpan has still not been corrected.

Nor, several hours later has the Huffington Post story (or the Tweet) on the replacement batteries been changed.

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand where he is also Assistant Dean. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs.



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