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iPod meltdown strands Tokyo commuters

'Truly regrettable' Apple response

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Apple's iPod flame-out woes continue. The latest victims: Tokyo commuters.

On Friday, Reuters reports, smoke from what turned out to be a self-immolating iPod caused passengers to alert transit officials on a commuter-train line, who quickly shut down the system.

"When a member of staff went to investigate inside the train," a rail spokesman told Reuters, "a passenger came over showing him that the iPod she was listening to had burst apart." There were no reports of injuries, and after an eight-minute delay, the system was restarted.

It should be noted that the line in question, Tōkyū Den-en-toshi, is no minor artery — it reportedly carries over one million passengers daily between Tokyo's busy Shibuya station and the commercially significant cities of Kawasaki and Yokohama.

Although the Reuters report said that the model of the offending iPod was unknown, the Japanese government has been embroiled for years in a tug-of-war with Apple over multiple reports of meltdowns by the first-generation iPod nano, which was released in September 2005 and replaced by the second-gen model one year later.

That argument came to a head at the end of last month, when the Japanese government's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) ordered Apple to come clean on the problem, and to inform the government what it plans to do about it.

"The ministry repeatedly asked Apple Japan to take market measures, such as giving warnings or recalling the products, but it has failed to do so," a METI spokesman said. And so, apparently tired of asking, the government issued its directive.

Apple responded last week by offering to replace the batteries in the offending iPod nano. According to the Wall Street Journal, Apple Japan admitted to "very rare cases of overheating" that it blamed on an unspecified battery manufacturer.

The commuter-line shutdown was not an isolated occurrence of an iPod nano going bad. WSJ also reported that there have been 61 cases of first-generation iPods overheating in Japan, with six requiring calls to the fire department and four causing minor burn injuries.

And the problems haven't been limited to Japan. A flaming iPod caused trouser terror for an airport worker in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2007, and was a suspect last year in the spontaneous combustion of a parked Saab in Sweden.

And it's not just iPods that are causing problems — add to them a flaming iPod touch in Kentucky, an exploding iPhone in France, and a Jobsian handset doing a Roman candle imitation in Italy. Even the Antennagate-free iPhone 4 hasn't been immune to alleged pyrotechnics.

And before you cut Apple too much slack for their bad luck in a few isolated instances, keep in mind how vigorous Cupertino has been in attempting to suppress publicity about its consumer-device fireworks.

Case in point: one luckless Liverpudlian heard his iPod hissing, rushed it outside, where "Within 30 seconds there was a pop, a big puff of smoke and it went 10ft in the air," as he told The Times (of London). Apple offered him a refund, but not only denied liability but added in a settlement letter: "You will keep the terms and existence of this settlement agreement completely confidential."

Then there was the case of the Seattle, Washington, television station KIRO, which reported "an alarming number" of iPod-related injuries — but only after Apple lawyers bogged down the station's ultimately successful request for government documents related to iPod meltdowns.

"Why did it take seven months for us to get these documents from the Consumer Products Safety Commission?", a KIRO reporter asked her audience while holding up a stack of file folders stuffed with 800 pages of documents. "Apple lawyers filed exemption after exemption, apparently hoping to keep me from from seeing some of this."

And now Apple's Japanese foot-dragging, which METI characterized as "truly regrettable."

The Reg cannot resist the temptation to use an overused suffix to create a catchphrase describing Apple's slow-moving response to the firestorm of Japanese iPod offenses, perhaps to puckishly prod a Cupertinian response of "There is no Batterygate." ®

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