Battery recall: it keeps going and going

The spate of recent laptop battery recalls has become one big headache for many enterprise IT staffers, but industry observers believe the headache may turn into an incessant migraine.

Overheating laptops can potentially become an industry trend as more mobile devices get increasingly pervasive and vendors struggle to meet user expectations for increased performance out of smaller devices, said Jack Gold, founder and principal analyst at J. Gold Associates in Northboro, Mass.

“One of the problems that the market has, in general, is that everyone wants smaller, thinner and lighter (laptops), but they also want it to have eight, 10, 12, 14 hours of battery time,” Gold said. Manufacturers can only pack so much into one small space and at some point, something has got to give, he added.

Processing performance for notebook and other mobile devices typically doubles every two years. Battery technology, however, has not kept pace with the “silicon curve,” gaining only between five per cent and 10 per cent every year, explained Gold.

Mark Bonner, director of IT at Toronto-based law firm Goodman and Carr LLP, shares Gold’s observation. “There is a perception in the user community that battery life will continue to improve, but unless notebooks become nuclear-powered, I can’t see the (battery) manufacturers being able to cope with the ever-increasing power requirements and even maltreatment (of laptops),” Bonner said. He cited users’ tendency to put notebooks on standby modes to minimize lengthy restarts, instead of observing known guidelines to prolong battery life.

To date, over six million battery packs made from Sony Corp.’s Lithium-Ion (Li-Ion) battery cells have been recalled since the campaign started in mid-August. Organizations with huge volumes of laptops deployed for workers have had their IT department scrambling for a system to track down affected units, order replacement batteries and install them on the notebooks.

Despite the hassle, many are willing to comply with the voluntary recall request citing worker and public safety reasons. “There isn’t much choice,” said Clarke Morledge, network engineer at Williamsburg, Va.-based College of William & Mary. He added that it could take months for the college’s IT department to have an accurate assessment of the impact of the recall.


Vendors have also been extending assistance to enterprise IT groups in establishing a system for conducting the recall and replacement of batteries, especially for organizations that have larger numbers of deployed notebooks. For instance, a spokeswoman from Dell Inc. earlier indicated that one approach they are taking for corporate users is setting up and staffing Dell kiosks at customer facilities to handle the recall and replacement for them.

In Canada, Dell is taking a direct approach for enterprise customers. “Because we [have a] direct (business) model, we are able to contact customers directly where we know they potentially have affected products, work with them to recall and replace their batteries,” said Greg Davis, president of Toronto-based Dell Canada.

ThinkPad maker Lenovo is confident that the user population would “appreciate the fact that we did react quickly and we did react in the interest of public safety,” said Ray Gorman, a Lenovo spokesperson in Raleigh, N.C.

“Understand that the common denominator for all the recall has been the Sony battery cell technology….The difficulties with the Sony cell was something that was experienced across the board in the entire industry,” said Gorman. Lenovo expects between five per cent and 10 per cent of ThinkPads sold in the market will be affected by the current Sony battery recall.

The problem with the batteries was traced to a specific batch of Sony Li-Ion batteries, which contained metal particles that can, in some cases, move from one area of a battery cell to another, thereby causing a short that can, in rare cases, lead to a fire, according to Sony.

Sony’s Li-Ion battery cells are used in major notebook brands including Dell, Lenovo, Fujitsu, Toshiba, Acer and Hitachi. All these companies have participated in the Sony recall.

Hewlett-Packard, which also uses Sony battery cells in its notebooks, announced it is not issuing a recall. “HP and Sony have studied and agreed that there are currently no safety issues with regard to HP battery packs using 2.4Ah or 2.6Ah Sony cells, although no battery is immune to failure or overheating,” said HP in a statement.

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— with files from IDG News Service

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