The European Parliament is bringing back replaceable phone batteries

...but people are getting it wrong.

TechSpot: "Sleek slabs could soon be a thing of the past"

Most batteries were standalone modular units that could be traded out by releasing a latch and sliding it out, kind of like the battery on cordless power tools today. For phones with "internal" batteries, you'd simply pop off the rear cover of the device, lift the battery out, put a fresh one in, and button it back up.

Manufacturers eventually moved away from easily swappable batteries in favor of "sealed" handsets sporting sleeker designs. Many consumers were vocal about the change but over time, most accepted it as the new norm and moved on. The EU's new rules could force manufacturers to open up the history books for ideas on how to move forward.

It's a reasonable first impulse given our history, but that's not what the actual legislation says.

Let's take a look at Article 11, section 1:

Any natural or legal person that places on the market products incorporating portable batteries shall ensure that those batteries are readily removable and replaceable by the end-user at any time during the lifetime of the product. That obligation shall only apply to entire batteries and not to individual cells or other parts included in such batteries.

A portable battery shall be considered readily removable by the end-user where it can be removed from a product with the use of commercially available tools, without requiring the use of specialised tools, unless provided free of charge with the product, proprietary tools, thermal energy, or solvents to disassemble the product.

Any natural or legal person that places on the market products incorporating portable batteries shall ensure that those products are accompanied with instructions and safety information on the use, removal and replacement of the batteries. Those instructions and that safety information shall be made available permanently online, on a publicly available website, in an easily understandable way for end-users.

In other words, it does not mean "every phone will, Nokia 3310-style, have to have a door that you can flip open and manually replace a battery, without any tools, just with your hands".

It does mean phones can keep looking the way they have been looking, but:

  • You can't use proprietary screws (unless the screwdrivers are sufficiently commercially available — Apple's Pentalobe screws may qualify now, but they wouldn't at the time of introduction when the purpose was to obfuscate and to prevent user repair).
  • For all practical purposes, disassembly or battery installation can't rely on steps that can only be done with factory methods or large proprietary tools.
  • Disassembly can't rely on heating the product up or dissolving adhesive.

As far as I can tell, a phone where you unscrew the screws at the bottom, which disengages the internal frame, where you then use a suction cup to separate the seal enough to then use prying tools to disengage clips enough to flip it open and then access the insides is fully compliant. Phones described by this design have already shipped in hundreds of millions of units.

This legislation does not say "no more batteries that are not inside easily user-accessible latches". If anything, it says "no more load-bearing adhesive to get inside the product and at the battery".

I will leave the wisdom of legislators dictating technological decisions for another day. But let's agree on the wisdom of understanding the details of those dictates.

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