The laptop computer has been bedevilled with power problems since its invention. Thirteen years ago Dell was forced to recall an early model after some units overheated.
It subsequently withdrew from the nascent market for several months to fix problems. More than a decade on, the recall and reputational risk for Dell are on a greater scale. Even before the announcement that 4.1m batteries were being recalled, the company was being pilloried on the internet over a few spectacular incidents.
Photographs of a Dell computer exploding into flames at a conference in Japan quickly spread across the internet, attracting wry comments from bloggers and spoof videos of mocked-up computer fires.
In an apparently genuine example of a power-related problem with a Dell laptop, a resident of Vancouver told Canada’s CBC television station of a close shave with his machine. “The computer blew up right where my head [had been],” said Trevor Bereck. “I feel so lucky that I got up.”
Although Dell is now linked with the biggest recall of this type, neither it nor Sony, which manufactured the batteries, are unique in having to inform customers of potential hazards in their equipment’s power source.
In 2000 Dell decided to recall 27,000 batteries produced by Sanyo after a manufacturing defect caused overheating that could lead to fires. A fortnight later Compaq ordered the return of 55,000 batteries manufactured by Sony that also had the propensity to overheat.
Only a year later Dell recalled 284,000 Panasonic-made batteries because of their fire risk. Apple and Hewlett-Packard have also had to recall hundreds of thousands of computer batteries in the last 12 months for the same reason.
“The technological developments [in batteries] were not keeping pace with the demands of the gadgets,” said Malavika Tohani, an analyst at Frost & Sullivan, who recently researched the market.
Lithium-ion batteries, the type involved in Dell’s recall, have not been adopted in cars or for industrial uses because of a tendency to overheat. “It has a thermal run-away feature,” said Ms Tohani. “It is very susceptible to blowing up if the temperature exceeds the specified limits.”
The US Consumer Product Safety Commission, which has worked with Dell on the current recall, has received 339 reports of lithium batteries overheating between 2003 and 2005.
But the battery type does have advantages: it is environmentally safer, cheaper and lighter than some alternatives.
“Some engineer made a very bad decision,” said Ted Schadler, vice-president of Forrester Research. “These are highly engineered products – there is not a lot of wriggle room in the specification.” The pressures of getting computers to market in the quickest possible time and at the lowest possible cost put manufacturers under strain, he added.
The advent of an ever wider array of power-hungry features inside PCs has placed greater demands on the battery supplier.
“Intel are using faster chips using more power; Microsoft is introducing more applications; consumers are using bigger displays to watch movies,” said Mr Schadler.
The scale of Dell’s recall may have more of an impact than the series of smaller incidents that have occurred since the laptop came to market. “This will drive a big change in everybody’s understanding of batteries,” said Mr Schadler.
Different models that are less prone to overheating, such as a lithium-ion polymer, could gain traction. But more expensive alternatives are threatened by the price pressure evident throughout the whole PC market.
Instead, moves by Intel, the chipmaker, and its competitors to focus more energy on designing chips that require less power may be the key to preventing a future product recall on the scale of Dell’s.