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Are we about to witness an IT industry version of the Ford/Firestone debacle of six years ago?

Computer maker Dell’s recall of 4.1 million Sony laptop batteries raises the question of which company is at fault for this mess, but a straight answer is bound to be elusive. The lithium-ion batteries were identified as the culprit of several Dell laptop fires, including a now-famous combustion of a machine at a business conference in Japan.

When Explorer SUVs with bad tires started rolling over and killing people, Ford Motor and Bridgestone/Firestone blamed each other, ultimately severing a relationship that went all the way back to the auto maker’s Model T.

One hopes Dell and Sony will be more civilized, but comments from a Sony spokesperson to London’s Guardian this week suggest we could see some serious finger-pointing.

“This is an issue specifically down to Dell’s battery-charging system,” a spokesperson for the electronics giant said.

Yet, Dell is suggesting that it expects an immaterial financial impact as a result of the recall, while Sony already has agreed to at least share in the estimated $400 million cost of the battery replacements.

The question of culpability has potential ramifications for the channel because more defective Sony batteries may be sitting out there ready to ignite laptops with brands other than Dell. Experts believe the problem originated in the manufacturing process.

Even though Hewlett-Packard and Lenovo Group representatives told eWEEK that their notebooks carrying similar Sony batteries are safe, it is possible that Dell isn’t the only carrier of the defective batteries.

Click here to read more about the potential for problems in laptops from other PC makers.

U.S. consumer safety officials told Reuters they are checking all Sony lithium-ion batteries for fire hazards.

According to Roger Kay, president of EndPoint Technologies Associates, in Wayland, Mass., the defective batteries may cause problems for other brands in the future.

“Why Dell thinks it’s the first to see the problem, is because it was first to adopt these [battery] cells from Sony,” Kay told eWEEK. “It thinks its competitors will start seeing these problems in greater frequency as these things get to be two years old and older.”

Should that prophecy come to pass, many more computer users may experience the same inconvenience that the users of those 4.1 million batteries in the recall are now facing. And this prospect certainly could cause serious headaches for the channel.

The recall is an untimely black eye for Dell, especially as the vendor grapples with customer service issues and underperforming financials, but in fairness, Sony has some explaining to do, even if it turns out the defective batteries came from a subcontractor’s assembly line.

Read more here about how the recall could affect Dell’s reputation.

So channel companies should resist the urge to use the battery debacle when competing with Dell for customers. Product recalls can affect any brand. Besides, solution providers should be winning deals because they offer higher-quality service and understand their customers’ business needs far better than Dell could ever hope to.

Regardless of whether Dell or Sony screwed up, the battery debacle is bad for the industry as a whole. It is just one more example of reliability issues that make users nervous about trusting computers.

Pedro Pereira is editor of eWEEK Strategic Partner, contributing editor to The Channel Insider and a veteran channel reporter. He can be reached at