Exploding iPhones: Fearmongering

The blogosphere is burning with news that the European Union is investigating reports of exploding Apple (AAPL) handheld devices. A French teenager allegedly received moderate injuries when his girlfriend's iPhone exploded near his face. Another report held that an iPod touch blew up.

Should you call the bomb squad to take away your iPhone? Nah. Just don't pay as much attention to breathless tales on the 'Net. Here's the real scoop.
There are, at present, two reports of exploding iPhones. That is two reports out of 26 million phones shipped. In other words, the average iPhone customer has roughly a one-in-13 million chance of this happening. According to this post (which was originally a reaction to the exploding Dell (DELL) laptops), you are far more likely to die after falling out of your bed than from an encounter with an exploding iPhone battery.

Even worse, with one of these two phones, there are questions about whether it actually did explode. The video footage showing the event makes it appear that the iPhone is still working after the explosion. That's hardly likely if the device's battery had just blown up.

True, lithium-ion batteries do overheat. Apple itself issued a recall of laptop batteries made by Sony (SNE) which were prone to overheating in 2006. These types of batteries are used in all laptops and handheld devices because they produce more power in a smaller footprint. The downside of this is that these batteries can produce more heat. And, in the past, these batteries have exploded on occasion. A massive panic about exploding batteries in Dell, Sony, and Toshiba laptops ensued in 2006 after several caught fire. There have also been reports of iPhones overheating. But these have never really gained critical mass.

But Apple, unlike many cell phone makers, built in a switch that automatically shuts down the iPhone if the battery reaches temperatures greater than 113 degrees Fahrenheit. Lithium-ion batteries, in generally, do not spontaneously combust. There is usually some heating that can be physically detected before a battery will actually burst into flames or explode. So if, for example, someone had left his iPhone in a backpack pocket, then picked it up and it blew up, that could explain such a scenario. But, again, that would mean the Apple heat sensor switch had failed.

Apple did send me a canned comment to the effect that they are going to look closely at the phones after they get them back in their labs. I didn't expect Apple to say much more because, well, not much more can be said and not much has really happened. One thing to keep in mind amidst all this noise: Anything Apple is quickly reported in the media and blog echo chamber and usually blown way out of proportion to the normal gravity of the situation. If there were two reports of a toaster catching on fire, the media world would not even notice. Because it's an iPhone, it is different. But it probably shouldn't be until there is stronger evidence of trouble.

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