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iPhone media blitz missed battery 'fee'

While hundreds of thousands of eager consumers waited anxiously for the iPhone last week, most probably didn’t know about the hidden fee attached to their purchase.

Now the obvious question is this: With all the words spoken and written about the iPhone prior to launch, why didn't someone tell them?

The iPhone battery will only survive about 300-400 recharges, the company says. Because the unit is sealed, consumers can't swap out dead batteries. Instead, dead phones must be sent to Apple, where battery replacement will take three business days and cost $79 plus a $6.95 shipping charge. Those who can't live without their cell phones for those three days can rent a spare iPhone for $29.

This pricey, and apparently inevitable, aftercharge never made it into any of the voluminous news stories written and filmed about the iPhone prior to its launch on June 29. Why not?

According to the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, Apple's Web site made no mention of the battery fee on the morning of June 29, when thousands of Apple faithful lined up all around the country to buy the phone, which costs $500 or $600, depending on model.

Harvey Rosenfield, director of the foundation, is calling on Apple to promise free battery replacements to the estimated half a million iPhone buyers who may have purchased the phone without knowing its true costs.

"This was insensitive, inappropriate and possibly illegal," he said. "We're going to monitor their response carefully."

Explanation of the fee now appears on Apple's Web site, although it's not clear when that was posted. Published reports indicate the notice was posted as early as the evening of June 29, though it was not easy to find.

Apple didn't immediately respond to requests for an interview for this story.

One week later

Blogs began mentioning the battery replacement fee early last week, after the launch. The first prominent reference to it seems to be in a Wall Street Journal column written by Walt Mossberg, which appeared in the newspaper on July 5.

But mention of the fee was absent from Mossberg's largely positive review of the iPhone, published in the Journal June 27.

In fact, price of the battery replacement was omitted from all four hands-on iPhone reviews published ahead of the product's release. Apple carefully controlled review units of the iPhone before June 29, allowing only Mossberg, The New York Times’ David Pogue, Newsweek's Steven Levy, and USAToday's Ed Baig to examine it. All four wrote extensive, highly detailed, and generally positive reviews. No mention of the $79 replacement fee or $29 rental fee appeared in any of them.

Those details didn’t appear in any of the the various “hands-off” reviews published by prior to the iPhone’s launch, either.

Rosenfield said he's concerned that Apple deliberately chose to withhold the information from the public.

"The half million people who bought the iPhone were never told by the folks who wrote the reviews some of the most crucial information you have to have to make your purchase decision, and you have to ask why," he said.

Mentioned in passing

Some reviewers did allude to the battery replacement costs, but none offered specifics.

Pogue's column mentions the battery issue. He wrote that Apple told him the unit could only withstand 300-400 charges, and that there would be a fee for replacement. Possible battery failures also were mentioned in his tongue-in-cheek video, which appeared on the Times’ Web site. Pogue said he didn’t learn of the actual cost for the iPhone replacement until about a week later.

"I reported exactly what they told me," Pogue said. "They said the price hadn't been determined, but that it would be 'very similar to the iPod program.'"

Mossberg said he wouldn't discuss details of his reporting.

Levy, who wrote the lengthiest review, said he expected all along that the iPhone battery replacement cost would be in line with iPod battery replacement -- which costs about $65.

"It turns out that it will cost more, but not by a shocking amount considering that the iPhone is one costly piece of technology, as I certainly do mention in my review," Levy said.

He added that he didn't believe battery replacement would be a significant issue for consumers.

"Though my review was lengthy, there was a lot to discuss, and I felt that the flaws I did write about were definitely ones that would affect the experience of using an iPhone more than the one-time annoyance of replacing a battery," he said. "In discussing the iPhone with people, I found that the main battery concern was how long it would last on a single charge, which was something I could and did test."

Baig's e-mail indicates he is on vacation and was not reachable. His story mentions possible battery problems in passing: “You'd have to send the device to Apple or presumably a third party to swap a spent battery,” he wrote.

Given the public controversy over iPod batteries, and the stiff price of an iPhone replacement, Rosenfield said that tack-on price should have been an obvious element in any news story about the iPhone. Keeping the information out of early reviews could constitute a lack of disclosure on Apple's part, he said.

"The question you have to raise, after all the conversations about the iPod problems, how could every single top reviewer fail to mention … the practical problems associated with the iPhone?" he said.

Like iPod failure, only worse

There is a significant difference between iPod battery failure and iPhone battery failure. If an iPhone fails before two years pass, consumers will still be obligated to pay their monthly subscription fee to AT&T, regardless of whether or not they can use the service. Apple’s iPods have no associated monthly fee. And of course, for most people, living without an iPod for a few days is much more palatable than living without a cell phone.

The replacement fee does not apply to consumers who must replace the battery while it is covered by Apple’s 1-year warranty. But given Apple’s expectations of a 300-400 recharge lifespan, many iPhones will predictably require replacement during the second year of a contract.

Rosenfield also complained about other hidden iPhone fees: the iPhone return policy is only 14 days, as opposed to AT&T's 30-day return policy. And even consumers who beat that 14-day deadline -- say, if they bring the phone home and just can't get a working cell signal -- must pay a 10 percent restocking fee.

"We all love how cool Apple products look, but that doesn't mean there isn't something wrong with these policies that need to be recognized and addressed," Rosenfield said.