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Second-generation Apple AirPods with wireless charging indicator
Todd Haselton | CNBC

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.

Replacement AirPods from PodSwap
CNBC

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 includes a box to send old AirPods back.
CNBC

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.

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Top Amazon exec says it’s a ‘myth’ robots steal jobs

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Top Amazon exec says it's a 'myth' robots steal jobs

A robot prepares to pick up a tote containing product at the Amazon Robotics fulfillment center on April 12, 2019 in Orlando, Florida.

Nurphoto | Nurphoto | Getty Images

A top Amazon executive told CNBC Thursday that it’s a “myth” that robots and other technologies take jobs away from people.

Stefano La Rovere, director of global robotics, mechatronics, and sustainable packaging at Amazon, said that, rather than replacing jobs, advanced robotics, artificial intelligence, and other technologies are enhancing people’s roles.

He added that new technology is leading to the creation of entirely new job categories.

“It is a myth that technology and robots take out jobs,” La Rovere told CNBC’s “Street Signs Europe” on Thursday.

Amazon says that the introduction of new technologies has enhanced more than 50,000 jobs across its fulfilment centers in Europe.

It's a myth that technology and robots take jobs away, Amazon director of global robotics says

The e-commerce giant says it has installed more than 1,000 new technologies across its European fulfillment center network over the last five years, for an overall investment of more than 700 million euros ($751 million).

“Robots and technology help our employees … by reducing walking distance between assignments, by taking away repetitive motions, or [by] helping them to lift heavy weights,” La Rovere  said.

“In turn, our employees can learn new skills, they can learn new competencies, they can acquire new capabilities that allow them to progress towards their career objectives,” he added.

La Rovere added that, “Over the last years, more than 700 new categories of jobs have been created by the use of technology.”

He cited the example of his own team, the Amazon robotics and AI division, which is focused on bringing automation to Amazon’s vast network of fulfillment centers that are responsible for getting orders packed and ready for delivery to customers.

 WATCH: Factories are heading for a ‘dark’ future — and it’s not what you think

Factories are heading for a 'dark' future — and it's not what you think

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China remains crucial for U.S. chipmakers amid rising tensions between the world’s top two economies

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China remains crucial for U.S. chipmakers amid rising tensions between the world's top two economies

US-China chip war graphic

Wong Yu Liang | Moment | Getty Images

China remains an essential market for most American chipmakers despite Washington’s efforts to restrict chip sales to the country and amid Beijing’s push for self sufficiency in the semiconductor sector. 

Data from S&P Global showed that U.S. chip giants Intel, Broadcom, Qualcomm and Marvell Technology all generate more revenue from China compared with the U.S. 

The U.S. has passed a series of export controls starting in October 2022 aimed at restricting China’s access to advanced chip technology, particularly those used in AI applications.

“China remains an important market for U.S. chipmakers, and the U.S. restrictions on selling advanced AI chips to China have been designed specifically to allow most U.S. firms to continue selling most types of chips to Chinese customers,” Chris Miller, author of “Chip War,” told CNBC.

Used in a wide range of products, from smartphones to electric vehicles, semiconductors have become a top priority for governments globally. 

According to data from tech consultancy Omdia, China consumes nearly 50% of the world’s semiconductors as it is the biggest market for assembling consumer devices. 

U.S. chipmakers, which enjoy technological leadership over Chinese competitors, have been able to tap this demand as the U.S. export curbs are focused on some very specific products.

“There are still plenty of ‘high end’ chips with all types of allowable use cases that are good to go where U.S. based chip companies have the dominant, leading edge,” said William B. Bailey, lead technology, media, and telecommunications analyst at Nasdaq IR Intelligence.

Navigating export curbs 

U.S. chipmakers, even those with a majority of business in the U.S., such as Micron Technology, AMD, and Nvidia, have strived to serve their Chinese clients even in the face of export controls. 

When the first wave of U.S. restrictions came into effect late in 2022, Nvidia and Intel designed modified versions of AI chip products for the Chinese market. 

A year later, the U.S. updated the export rules to tackle these perceived loopholes. But, soon after, it was reported that Nvidia was working on a new chip made for China.

Intel has reportedly continued to sell hundreds of millions of dollars worth of laptop processor chips to U.S.-sanctioned Chinese telecoms company Huawei, thanks to an export license issued by the Donald Trump administration.

The company did not respond to a request for comment on their plans for the China market.

U.S. strategy to limit China's rise as a technological power is working, analyst says

AMD has also designed an AI chip for China but will need to apply for an export license after failing to get it past U.S. regulators last month.

Executives of Intel, Qualcomm, and Nvidia, had reportedly been part of a group that planned to lobby Washington against tighter chip restrictions in July last year.

The companies are also members of Semiconductor Industry Association, a major U.S. semiconductor trade organization, which released a statement around the same time requesting an easing of tensions and a halt on further sanctions due to the importance of the Chinese market for domestic chip companies.

Amid a tough policy stance by the U.S., China has also responded in kind. In May last year, chips produced by America’s Micron were banned from critical information infrastructure in China after failing a review by the country’s Cyberspace Administration. 

Micron is constructing a new assembly and test manufacturing facility at an existing site in Xi’an, China, as the country “remains an important market for Micron and the semiconductor industry,” a company spokesperson told CNBC. Production is estimated to start in the second half of 2025, they said.

Market share worries

China could catch up to U.S. in the semiconductor sector, says Insights & Strategy CEO

The Chinese government is “increasingly focused” on getting its firms to buy locally made chips, Miller said. “Unless foreign companies have a substantial technological advantage over domestic Chinese competitors, they will lose market share in China.” 

However, Phelix Lee, equity analyst at Morningstar, said it does not expect “an overhaul of the supply chain” even as Chinese firms could be innovating legacy chips found in everything from household appliances to medical equipment. 

Legacy chips are typically mature or lower-end semiconductors. U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said about 60% of these chips are manufactured by China

According to Brady Wang, associate director at Counterpoint Research, in the AI GPU market segment, American companies such as Nvidia and Intel are estimated to have a technological lead of about three to five years over Chinese competitors.

“We believe China can still build up its local GPU supply chain for specific market segments, but the amount will be limited, and the cost will be much higher,” he added.

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Apple shares just had their best day since last May

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Apple shares just had their best day since last May

Apple CEO Tim Cook greets customers as he arrives for the release of the Vision Pro headset at the Apple Store in New York City on Feb. 2, 2024.

Angela Weiss | AFP | Getty Images

Apple shares climbed 4.3% on Thursday to a share price of $175.04. It is Apple’s best day since May 5, 2023.

Apple’s rise came during a strong day for technology stocks, especially those in artificial intelligence, as the Nasdaq Composite rose 1.77%.

Apple shares are down more than 5% so far this year. On Thursday, JPMorgan analysts wrote that sentiment over Apple shares is improving with hedge fund investors, partially due to its recent stock slide.

Despite some negative trends around iPhone sales in China, and recent reports of canceled projects such as its effort to build a car, JPMorgan analyst Samik Chatterjee said investors may be more comfortable with its current valuation after recent losses and the potential to benefit from AI.

The JPMorgan analysts predicted a strong iPhone sales cycle in 2026 due to forthcoming AI features. Apple CEO Tim Cook recently told investors to expect an AI announcement later this year. That is expected to occur during Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference event in June.

“Hedge fund investors are increasingly warming up to the opportunity of the AI upgrade cycle, but the uncertainty still pertains to whether the upgrade cycle starts with iPhone 16 in September 2024 or iPhone 17 in September 2025,” Chatterjee wrote.

Separately, Apple is also preparing new Mac laptops and desktops with next-generation “M4 chips” that emphasize AI, according to a report Thursday from Bloomberg. Apple declined to comment on the report. The current generation of Apple’s chips is called M3.

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