Apple AirPod batteries are almost impossible to replace, showing the need for right-to-repair reform
When AirPods were first released in 2016, they were a marvel of miniaturization.
To ditch cords and go wireless, Apple packed several chips, microphones and speakers into each headphone, which weigh about 4 grams. Without a cord, the earbud gets its power from a tiny cylindrical battery that has about 1% of the capacity of an iPhone’s battery.
But lithium-ion batteries, like those used by the AirPods, wear out the more they are used.
Some owners have noticed that, after a few years, used AirPods eventually will last only an hour or so before needing to be recharged — a big decay from the four-to-five-hour battery life they have when new. Because each AirPod is so small and so tightly packed into its housing, it’s almost impossible to swap out the old battery for a new one. Most people give up and just buy a new pair.
The limited lifespan of AirPods is exactly the kind of problem that the “right-to-repair” movement wants to fix. Repair shops and lobbyists that support repair reform want lawmakers to implement a variety of rules, including increased access to manuals and official parts and consumer protections around warranties.
But one of their most important requests is for companies to design products with repair in mind, instead of packing gadgets with unlabeled parts and sticking them together with glue, forcing users to use a knife to take them apart.
This desire puts repair advocates at odds with hardware companies like Apple, whose business models depend on customers upgrading to the latest model every few years. When Apple offered cheap iPhone battery repairs a few years ago, it hurt sales as consumers were able to hang on to their old phones for longer instead of upgrading. Apple also charges customers for repairs and extended warranties.
“We design our products for durability in order to minimize the need for repair,” Apple wrote in an environmental report earlier this year. “But in the instance a repair is needed, we believe our customers should have convenient access to safe and reliable repair services, to get their product back up and running as quickly as possible.”
The right-to-repair movement gains steam
Policymakers have started to engage more closely with right-to-repair advocates in recent years. State-level bills have been introduced in a majority of states, but electronics companies have lobbied against them and none have passed.
In May, the Federal Trade Commission released a 56-page report on repair restrictions, concluding that repair restrictions have “steered consumers into manufacturers’ repair networks or to replace products before the end of their useful lives” — exactly the problem users are running into with their AirPods.
The Biden administration on Friday ordered the FTC to write new regulations targeted at limiting manufacturers’ ability to hamper independent or do-it-yourself repairs as part of a sweeping executive order. New repair rules have not yet been drafted.
“Tech and other companies impose restrictions on self and third-party repairs, making repairs more costly and time-consuming, such as by restricting the distribution of parts, diagnostics, and repair tools,” the White House wrote in a fact sheet about the order on Friday, linking to a story about fixing Apple products. Apple declined to comment on the White House executive order.
The FTC has not said what it plans to do, but repair advocates want a few key policy changes, as detailed in its May report. They want companies to be required to make official replacement parts available. They want access to tools that could make repairs easier without reverse-engineering the tools or parts themselves. And ultimately, they want products to be designed with longer lifespans.
Apple is not the only company that would be affected by these policies. Much of the recent pressure is on medical device companies and tractor manufacturers. But given Apple’s ubiquity, it has become a poster child for repair, especially because it promotes its environmental efforts as a corporate value.
Apple has launched a program it calls the “Independent Repair Program” which gives repair shops the option to enter into a certification process and contract with Apple in order to get access to authentic Apple parts, tools and manuals.
Apple has also reduced the price of its battery replacement for iPhones, and recent models have been designed to make it easier to replace a battery or cracked screen, according to iFixit. Plus, compared to other consumer electronics companies, Apple has a large existing network of stores and authorized repair shops.
Still, many Apple products remain challenging to repair at home or as a business with no contact with Apple.
The only AirPods battery replacement company
iFixit, a company that provides disassembly instructions and sells replacement parts for gadgets, gives AirPods models a score of zero out of 10 for repairability. According to iFixit, repairing these earbuds involves soldering, hot air guns and slicing through glue — that is, if replacement battery parts are even available. In the end, a would-be home repairer would have to put the four-gram computer back together again.
Apple provides “battery service” for AirPods, at the cost of $49 per earbud. But functionally, Apple simply gives you a replacement pair, and the old earbuds are recycled. It’s not a repair, it’s a replacement. And it’s expensive. AirPods originally cost $159, so opting for battery service costs more than half of the price of a new pair.
Apple sold about 72.8 million AirPods units in 2020, according to a CounterPoint research estimate, so tens of millions of consumers will face the same lack of choice in the coming years.
PodSwap is a Miami company founded by Emma Stritzinger and Emily Alpert which aims to keep AirPods “out of the landfill.” They’re not associated with Apple.
They believe they’re the only company performing AirPod battery replacements, although other companies “refurbish” old AirPods, the founders told CNBC. The company was formed after the founders experienced dying AirPods themselves and thought that upgrading or replacing them would be wasteful and impractical.
I recently replaced a pair of AirPods that were only holding a charge for 45 minutes — too short to complete a phone call. I paid $59 on PodSwap’s Shopify site and a few days later received a replacement pair of AirPods with new batteries. They weren’t my old AirPods, they were another set that had their batteries replaced.
Along with those new pods, PodSwap includes a box and a return label. It wants your old AirPods back. It then cleans and sanitizes the old pair, puts in new batteries and sends them out to the next person who wants to change the battery in their old AirPods.
But PodSwap faces many challenges that show why repair advocates want new rules. Alpert said the design of the AirPod makes it challenging for repair shops or companies like theirs to do a lot of battery replacements. PodSwap’s process uses both robotics and manual labor, the founders said.
“The process was developed through trial and error and a large number of units were ‘sacrificed’ and ultimately recycled. One major challenge we faced was overcoming the uniqueness of this product. Each AirPod is assembled with slight differences, which creates complexity in the disassembly,” Alpert said.
PodSwap plans to soon offer service for the AirPods Pro, a newer model that costs $249 and are, surprisingly, powered by a standard-sized coin battery.
But the AirPods Pro have many of the same problems as the first model — tight tolerances, potential damage while taking them apart, a lack of replacement parts, and a design that suggests the product was always designed to last a limited time.
“We have found the AirPods Pro’s batteries to be more difficult to replace,” Alpert said. “The ergonomic design and tight unforgiving tolerances make it exceptionally challenging to replace the batteries repeatedly, with a high degree of efficiency.”
PodSwap wasn’t totally seamless for me — I got sent a combination of “first generation” and “second generation” AirPods. They caused my iPhone to send error messages, but I sent an email to PodSwap and a day or two later I got a second replacement set, which worked.
After that, I sent my first replacement set and my old AirPods back. The AirPods I received look and work like new.
I plan on trying to get another four years out of them.
DOJ asks for independent probe into FTX bankruptcy, a likely tactic to gather evidence on alleged fraud
John Ray, chief executive officer of FTX Cryptocurrency Derivatives Exchange, arrives at bankruptcy court in Wilmington, Delaware, US, on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022.
Eric Lee | Bloomberg | Getty Images
The Department of Justice has requested that an independent examiner be appointed to review “substantial and serious allegations of fraud, dishonesty” and “incompetence” after the implosion of Sam Bankman-Fried’s crypto empire. It could be one way for the DOJ to gather evidence of alleged fraud.
In a filing in Delaware federal bankruptcy court, Andrew Vara, a U.S. bankruptcy trustee, told the court that the allegations of corporate misconduct and complete failure merited an immediate and speedy examination of the events leading up to FTX’s stunning collapse three weeks ago.
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Vara said there’s a substantial basis to believe that Bankman-Fried and other managers mismanaged FTX or engaged in fraudulent conduct.
“It seems to me that the DOJ is trying to use the bankruptcy process as a way of getting evidence,” former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti told CNBC.
“Many times, the Department of Justice and bankruptcy estates in fraud cases work together in compiling potential restitution or other types of actions to make victims whole,” he said. The DOJ “will likely be part of the asset recovery and potentially having a Victims Fund with money going to those that lost money and what the Department of Justice potentially will view as a fraud.”
“It just shows a level of interest and attention that they’re paying to this that should be troubling to Mr. Bankman-Fried.”
Vara said an examination is preferable to an internal investigation because of the wider implications the company’s collapse may have on the crypto industry.
Another legal expert said that there could be other factors at play too, including the extensive political donations that FTX executives were involved in on both sides of the aisle.
There have been “campaign donations on both sides of the aisle from FTX and there have been political overtones and undertones in this case,” said Braden Perry, former senior trial attorney at the Commodities Futures Trading Commission and Kennyhertz Perry partner.
“I think that this is just out of prudence and out of caution to make sure that whatever is happening is done at an independent level,” Perry continued.
It’s not unusual to appoint a bankruptcy examiner. There was one to oversee the crypto bankruptcy process of Celsius Network, for example.
Bankruptcies above a certain size require an examiner. In this case, the U.S. Trustee said that an examiner is mandatory because FTX’s fixed, liquidated and unsecured debts to customers exceed the $5 million threshold.
FTX’s November collapse left creditors reeling over the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars, in some cases, and has rocked the wider crypto world. BlockFi, a crypto lender, filed for bankruptcy protection in New Jersey last week.
Tech layoffs send visa holders on frantic search for employment to avoid deportation
After years of seemingly boundless expansion, the U.S. tech industry has hit a wall. Companies are in cash preservation mode, leading to thousands of job cuts a month and a surge of layoffs in November.
While the sudden loss of a paycheck can be devastating for anyone, especially during the holiday season, the recent wave of reductions is having an outsized impact on skilled workers who are living in the U.S. on temporary visas and are at risk of being sent home if they can’t secure a new job in short order.
Tech companies are among the employers with the most approvals for H-1B visas, which are granted to people in specialty occupations that often require a college degree and extra training. Silicon Valley has for years leaned on temporary visas issued by the government to employ thousands of foreign workers in technical fields such as engineering, biotech and computer science. That’s a big reason tech companies have been outspoken in their defense of immigrants’ rights.
Workers on temporary visas often have 60 to 90 days to find a new gig so they can avoid being deported.
“It’s this amazing talent pool that the U.S. is fortunate to attract, and they’re always living on the edge,” said Sophie Alcorn, an immigration lawyer based in Mountain View, California, who specializes in securing visas for tech workers. “Many of them up are up against this 60-day grace period deadline. They have a chance to find a new job to sponsor them, and if they can’t do that, they have to leave the U.S. So it’s a stressful time for everybody.”
The already grim situation worsened in November, when Meta, Amazon, Twitter, Lyft, Salesforce, HP and DoorDash announced significant cuts to their workforces. More than 50,000 tech workers were let go from their jobs in November, according to data collected by the website Layoffs.fyi.
Amazon gave staffers who were laid off 60 days to search for a new role inside the company, after which they’d be offered severance, according to a former Amazon Web Services employee who lost his job. The person spoke to CNBC on the condition of anonymity.
In fiscal 2021, Amazon had the most approved petitions for H-1B visas, with 6,182, according to a National Foundation for American Policy review of U.S. immigration data. Google, IBM and Microsoft also ranked near the top of the list.
The former AWS employee has been in the country for two years on student and employment visas. He said he was unexpectedly laid off at the beginning of November, just months after joining the company as an engineer. Despite Amazon informing him that he had 60 days to find another position internally, the person said his manager advised him to apply for jobs elsewhere due the company’s pullback in hiring. Amazon said in November it’s pausing hiring for its corporate workforce.
An Amazon spokesperson didn’t provide a comment beyond what CEO Andy Jassy said last month, when he told those affected by the layoffs that the company would help them find new roles.
Companies generally aren’t specifying what percentage of the people being laid off are on visas. A search for “layoffs H1B” on LinkedIn surfaces a stream of posts from workers who recently lost their jobs and are expressing concern about the 60-day unemployment window. Visa holders have been sharing resources on Discord servers, the anonymous professional network Blind and in WhatsApp groups, the former AWS employee said.
It had already been a frenetic few years for foreign workers in the U.S. well before surging inflation and concerns of a recession sparked the latest round of job cuts.
The Trump administration’s hostile posture toward immigration put the H-1B program at risk. As president in 2020, Donald Trump signed an executive order suspending work visas, including those with H-1B status, claiming they hurt employment prospects for Americans. The move drew a strong rebuke from tech executives, who said the program serves as a pipeline for talented individuals and strengthens American companies. President Joe Biden allowed the Trump-era ban to expire last year.
Whatever relief the Biden presidency provided is of limited value to those who are now jobless. An engineer who was recently laid off by gene-sequencing technology company Illumina said he hoped his employer would sponsor his transfer to an H-1B visa. He’s here on a different visa, known as Optional Practical Training (OPT), which allows graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to work in the U.S. for up to three years after graduation.
The former Illumina employee, who spoke on condition that he not be named, not only has to find a new job within 90 days from the layoff date, but his OPT visa expires in August. Any company that hires him must be willing to sponsor his visa transfer and pay the related fees. He’s considering going back to school in order to extend his stay in the U.S., but he’s anxious about taking on student loans.
Illumina said in November it was cutting about 5% of its global workforce. A company spokesperson told CNBC that less than 10% of impacted employees were here on H-1B or related visas.
“We are engaging with each employee individually so that they understand the impact to their employment eligibility and options to remain in the U.S.,” the spokesperson said by email. “We are working to review each and every situation to ensure great care for those impacted, and to ensure compliance with immigration law.”
The ex-employee said he had dreams of working for Illumina, planting roots in the U.S. and buying a house. Now, he said, he’s just trying to find a way to stay in the country without going deep into debt. In just a matter of months, it’s “like a night and day difference,” he said.
Elon Musk suspends Ye’s Twitter account after swastika post
Ye’s Twitter account was suspended again Friday for violating the social media platform’s rules on “incitement to violence,” CEO Elon Musk said.
The rapper, formerly known as Kanye West, appeared to post an image of a swastika, a symbol synonymous with the Nazis, inside a Star of David, a prominent symbol of Judaism.
Musk said he “tried his best” in response to Ye’s tweet, which can no longer be viewed. “Despite that, he again violated our rule against incitement to violence. Account will be suspended.”
Ye’s tweet came after he made antisemetic comments in an interview with the controversial radio host Alex Jones on Thursday. Ye referred to “the Jewish media” and said he saw “good things about Hitler” in an hourlong conversation with the conspiracy theorist.
In October, Twitter locked Ye’s account for an unspecified amount of time following a string of antisemitic remarks which escalated into threatening and hateful comments about Jewish people. He returned to Twitter in November.
The billionaire Tesla CEO, who has called himself a “free speech absolutist,” is finding the limits of that tested in his early days of owning Twitter.
Musk has attempted to make sweeping changes in his first few days in charge, including gutting a huge swathe of Twitter’s workforce and launching an $8 per month “Verified” service that allows users to buy the coveted blue check mark.
Twitter was forced to pause its subscription service however after users abused it by paying the fee to get a blue check then impersonating celebrities.
Musk said last week that the “Verified” service would be relaunched on Friday with different colored check marks, but there has been no update on whether this is still the case.
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