Monday, 20 August 2007

The iPhone battery lawsuit

Another day, another Apple battery lawsuit.

The whole thing is at for those interested in the detail.

The substance of the allegations against Apple is:

  • an iPhone battery only lasts 300 charges, and this implies a battery must be replaced in less than 2 years
  • only Apple can replace the battery because it is soldered in, and this imposes not only an unacceptable cost but unfair "enrichment" on Apple's part
  • sending in the battery results in total data loss

First, the battery replacement policy is not great – most cell phone users who need a new battery would at worst expect to wait in a shop while it was replaced. Second, the cost is high.

However, the substance of the allegations doesn't stand up to detailed scrutiny. The "loss of data" is not as serious as it is made to sound. As Apple makes clear, you should back up your data before sending the phone in – not exactly the same thing as total, irrecoverable data loss, as the law suit would have you think.

Also, the number of charges is stated by Apple as follows:

    A properly maintained iPhone battery is designed to retain up to 80% of its original capacity at 400 full charge and discharge cycles.

Nowhere does Apple equate a "charge and discharge" cycle to about one day's use as the lawsuit attempts to claim. Let's for example take a day's use as:

  • 1 hour of music
  • 2 hours of video
  • 2 hours Internet
  • 1 hour of talking
  • 18 hours standby

Given Apple's claims of 8 hours' talk time, 6 of Internet, 7 of video playback, 24 hours of audio playbackand up to 250 hours of standby time, these numbers represent about 85% of a full charge on a good battery. You might do something like this if you were travelling (watch a moving on a plane, catch up on your email, listen to some music, do some long business calls).

What if you have a day at the office, and only use the phone for a few phone calls, and to listen to some music on public transport to and from home? The usage could look something like this:

  • 1 hour of music
  • no video
  • no Internet
  • half an hour of talking
  • 22.5 hours standby

On Apple's numbers this would use less than 20% of a full charge. So with this sort of usage, you could go almost a week between charges.

On these numbers, the phone would still be reasonably usable in a wide range of scenarios if Apple's 80% of capacity after 400 cycles is correct. With moderate usage – mostly phoning with occasional music in daily use; videos only while travelling – a full charge cycle every 4 days seems likely. This would mean the battery would still be reasonably useful after 1600 days – over 4 years.

My own low-end Nokia phone which is a couple of months shy of 4 years old has a battery which is holding about 50% of its original charge.

So unless Apple is lying about the battery specs – which is not claimed in the lawsuit – I can't see that the claim that the battery's life is inadequate by industry standards holds up.

Of course it is possible that Apple did not have all the information I found on their web site the day the phone was launched. However, I do recall discussion of the battery issue pretty early on and, as others have pointed out, the plaintiffs always had the option to return the phone if they didn't like it.

So, in summary – I don't like the battery policy but don't see the basis for the lawsuit. It looks to me like a fishing expedition.

Monday, 6 August 2007

The Physics Mafia

In 2002, the South African government re-calibrated funding per student in universities. Instead of all science students attracting the same government subsidy, science students were divided into 3 categories: subjects that were expensive to teach (Physics, Chemistry, life sciences), subjects with less intensive lab requirements (Mathematics) and subjects that are really cheap to teach (Computer Science).

Computer Science extra cheap to teach – cheaper than pure maths? Did you hear that right?

A moment's reflection will show that this is idiotic. Computer science at its most theoretical is pure maths. At its most applied, it is a kind of engineering (which is in the higher category, along with mathematical sciences – not the highest category, with physics etc.).

Despite numerous protests, this idiocy has persisted.

What's going on: is the SA government run by idiots?

It seems not (entirely): this information comes from the universities which are run by idiots; the government has only been stupid in believing them.

What these rankings represent is not what these subjects should cost to teach, but what they have historically cost.

Physics has been expensive for some time because it attracts low student numbers, has a relatively high fraction of senior academics (hence with more expensive salaries) and most physics departments have a generous complement of lab staff. Computer Science, on the other hand, is a relatively new discipline, without many senior academics and without lab staff.

The lack of lab staff is the most serious differentiator, and feeds back to the other major difference in numbers of senior academics. For a typical Physics first year class, the lecturer just shows up for lectures. Lab staff take care of pracs, and tutors take care of tutorials. Since the fundamentals are largely settled (most Physics developed in the last 200 years is considered advanced, and is not seen in big classes), the same lab exercises can be recycled every year, and lab equipment can last decades. Lab staff do not need specialist skills in demand in industry, and can be trained up off the street. This means that running large classes (e.g., Physics for engineers) is not particularly onerous. Up the scale, Physics is not particularly popular as a major, so level 2 and above classes are small, and lecturing small classes of keen students is a whole lot less effort than handling big classes of students of wide variations in ability and motivation. And of course running labs is a whole lot easier even in this scenario with trained lab staff. The result? Physics academics have a fair amount of free time to write papers and build their CVs.

In Computer Science, the situation is reversed. The subject (despite the odd downturn in demand) has been more popular than Physics for decades, resulting in much larger classes at level 2 and above. On the other hand, most Computer Science departments in South Africa have no lab staff. Their technical staff capacity is usually sufficient to maintain the servers, networks and lab computers, but not to set up and manage exercises. This puts a major additional burden on academics – at all levels from introductory to advanced classes. A moment's reflection would reveal that failing to employ support staff is a false economy: if someone with a PhD and 20 years' experience is doing work that a technician could do, you are in effect paying a technician the salary of a person with a PhD and 20 years' experience. From the point of view of academics, building a research track record is significantly more difficult than in Physics. There is very little time to spare while running courses. Only by attracting research students do you stand much chance of producing significant output. But it's much easier to attract research students if you already have interesting outputs.

So why is this happening? Physics has a cosy position in South Africa. Even in the best funded higher education systems, Physics departments have been closed because they are not attracting students (in the UK, 20 Physics departments have closed over the last decade). Yet in South Africa, universities persist in the 19th century view that Physics is the only real science (captured in Rutherford's claim that "All science is either physics or stamp collecting"). The reason? Physics academics have been very good at putting their case that they are brilliant researchers. No doubt some of them are. But I wonder how well they would do if their lab staff were removed from their undergrad classes. Perhaps we could try the experiment with just one big first year class.

So should Computer Science be cheaper than Physics, even taking all this into account? It's hard to see why. You can teach a perfectly good undergrad Physics curriculum with 20-year-old equipment and lab staff without higher degrees. Computer Science by contrast does not have settled fundamentals, and computers go obsolete fast: few industry users keep a computer longer than 3 years. Worse, the skills needed to set up and maintain computer labs are in heavy demand in industry: look for job ads with keywords like "network administrator" or "server administrator". Add in the job descriptions for the sort of lab staff taken for granted in Physics, and you have a real problem: you need skilled programmers – also a hot commodity in industry.

Should we care?

Aside from the fact that the South African government has made ICT a central component of its economic development plan, there is the general question of how best to spend limited resources. Physics could be run at an acceptable level if a lot less pleasant for academics on a significantly lower budget. Making Physics academics spend more time in undergrad labs would be an imposition on their time but there is an oversupply of Physics academics worldwide, so they would not have much option to protest. On the other hand, freeing up Computer Science academics to do more research could have a very significant effect because there is another variable not yet discussed: Computer Science research is on the whole a lot cheaper than Physics research, because many of the big breakthrough areas in Physics require extremely exotic, expensive equipment. On the other hand, one of the great success stories in Computer Science has been collapsing cost of computing, opening up an increasing range of low-cost research opportunities.

In summary: by pretending the Computer Science is very cheap to teach while Physics is expensive, South African universities are shooting themselves in the foot. It would be much cheaper to set South Africa up as a world-class centre of Computer Science research, than a world-class centre of Physics research. What's more, they could attract major government funding – instead of the current fiasco, where the government is sinking major resources into the CSIR's Meraka institute without much to show for it ... funding which should have gone to the universities.

What about the other "expensive" subjects? Physics and Chemistry are lumped together as Physical Sciences which is in itself a major inaccuracy: Chemistry (along with life sciences) has major expenses of lab consumables, justifying a higher price tag. Whether this makes high-consumable lab subjects inherently more expensive than Computer Science, where lab infrastructure is in effect a consumable remains questionable – but they at least do have a case for being more expensive than Physics or pure maths. On the other hand, these subjects also have an army of lab staff. I remember a biologist at the University of the Witwatersrand some years ago complaining how consequent on funding cuts, they no longer had a person to call on to wash their cars after a field trip. So tough. I wish I had their problems.

Why this apparent trade between Computer Science and Physics? Wouldn't everyone score if Computer Science was moved up the scale? Governments have a notorious inability to scale up university funding to changed circumstances. If a relatively popular subject attracted a higher notch in the funding formula and the overall funding didn't increase, the extra funding for that subject would have to come from other areas of the university. The obvious target would be a subject that has low student numbers and is expensive to teach ... like Physics. (To be fair, I suspect other lab subjects would also have to be cut a bit because Physics wouldn't be big enough on its own.)

By allowing physicists to get away with this unbalanced funding model, they are doing not only Computer Scientists a disservice, but also society as a whole; the differences in research costs feed directly to differences in the ability to make an industrial and societal impact. In Physics, doing something at the level of inventing the transistor requires a massively funded research lab with Nobel laureate-level scientists. The Computer Science equivalent of inventing the world-wide-web requires a commodity PC with a free operating system.

The solution? Universities should be brave and back their Computer Science departments to deliver. If a few other departments would have to pull in their belts as a consequence, they would survive. It's not as if they have anywhere else to go.

Here are a few other related articles in this series: