Sunday, August 01, 2010

Apple's battery charger, occult inflation, and the future of American industry


This is important. Stick with me for a moment ...

Apple is now selling a battery charger. Yeah, a $30 battery charger.
Apple Battery Charger - The energy-efficient way to power your accessories.

... Each Apple Battery Charger comes with six high-performance AA NiMH batteries .... these batteries have an incredibly long service life — up to 10 years ... extraordinarily low self-discharge rate. Even after a year of sitting in a drawer, they still retain 80 percent of their original charge... Apple power adapters, the Apple Battery Charger is designed with a removable AC plug, so you can replace it with plugs that fit different outlets around the world.
We used to have NiMH chargers. We owned two or three. They all failed. The batteries had very short lifespans. They discharged very quickly. We gave up.

Now Apple makes a charger and they pick the batteries. It works with the extension cables we have for other Apple chargers. It works with the international plugs we have. It addresses every problem we've had with NiMH chargers. We'll buy it for $29.

This is important.


It's important because from about 1997 through 2007, during the years when China became the world's dominant manufacturer and upset the world's equilibrium, befuddled consumers bought on price alone. Manufacturers trashed their brands in a desperate bid to shed costs, and quality plummeted on everything from toasters to heparin. The price of a VCR/DVD player fell by 50%, but the lifespan fell by 75%. Economists claimed low inflation even as they adjusted prices for "increasing" quality, but in reality quality was falling off a cliff. We had much more quality-adjusted inflation than we were measuring.

In 2008 the economies of the industrialized world collapsed, unable to adapt quickly enough to the twin shocks of the rise of China and India and the machines. Since then consumers have bought far more carefully, and the quality collapse stopped. The drop in inflation, adjusted for quality, was substantially greater than we've measured.

There was one exception among manufacturers over this past decade.

Yeah. Apple. The one significant brand that didn't die.

I have a lot of issues with Apple. Their quality, especially their software quality, is overrated. Even so, there's a reason that 8/10 of our tech money goes to them (not counting the significant portion that pays for telecomm services). Apple, led by the most eccentric and powerful CEO since Howard Hughes and Seymour Cray, behaved like a privately held company with public company finances. When everyone else squeezed margins, Apple's margins rose. Eveyone else fought on price, Apple fought on design and value. We know who won.

If Apple made a toaster, they'd own the toaster market. I'm half-convinced they're going to do that.

If Apple made a van, it would have a 100 amp generator, diagnostics posted to MobileMe with an iPad app, indicator lights that tell you what freakin' door is open, five plug/USB outlets (they'd omit the ugly cigar lighter thing of course), a non-brain-dead security system, a fantastic sound system a geezer could run, a simple key to complement your iPhone remote control app.

I'd buy that freakin' van.

Pay attention America! This ain't hard!

No, actually, it is hard. It's not the technology that's hard. It's not the marketing that's hard. It's trying to be Apple without Steve Jobs and with the baggage of a failed model for organizing work. The American publicly traded company is obsolete.

We're in aftermath (we hope) of the greatest financial collapse in 80 years. If we'd handled the Great Recession (or is it GD II?) like Hoover did GD I, we'd have work camps by now. Part of our rehabilitation requires effective regulatory oversight. Another part, a part I've more to write about, will require solutions to the mass disability of the modern era.

The last part of our rehabilitation requires an alternative to the failed model publicly traded company. We can't rely on one-of-a-kind obsessed all-powerful super-wealthy genius CEOs. We need a different form of corporate ownership. One that will produce the toasters and vans we want with the value we need.



Martin said...

We used to have NiMH chargers. We owned two or three. They all failed. The batteries had very short lifespans. They discharged very quickly. We gave up.

Are you kidding?

I bought a decent NiMH charger a few years ago and it is still running smoothly. The features advertised by Apple are pretty standard for decent 'intelligent' chargers, at least here in Western Europe … well, maybe with the difference that my charger supports up to four batteries (e.g. for my 3-battery Apple Wireless Keyboard) and can charge AAA batteries too.

Is the charger situation in America that bad?

Re. China: Do you really expect this charger not to be made outside America? The Chinese, etc. manufacture whatever you order, high quality and hopefully high price included.

(And why doesn't Apple deliver products with rechargeable batteries and the possibility to charge via USB? Logitech is an example here.)

John Gordon said...

That was our experience. I wasn't making it up. I can't comment on your experience, I write about what I experience.

FWIW I think Europeans, especially Germans, have been much more quality conscious than Americans. I don't know why.

All of Apple's products are made in China. I suspect it's very hard to get quality products from China, but I am sure it's easier now than it was 10 years ago.

Martin said...

Apple's ads suggest that rechargeable batteries are not that common in the USA. From a European perspective, the Apple ads sound as if Apple had invented such batteries … ;)

John Gordon said...

Of course they didn't invent the MP3 player either, but you wouldn't know that from their marketing.

From my point of view, they've reinvented the rechargeable battery industry in the US.

I do think European product quality has been much higher than US quality over the past decade. More demanding consumers, or less disposable income (so must be spent more wisely).