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Next Gen Tech: A Cautionary Tale

Yesterday, my iPhone became the latest victim of a wave of buggy units. About 3 months after unboxing the phone I lost the entire bottom strip of touch sensitivity. For those of you who don’t have an iPhone, that means no call button, no email, no Safari, and no iPod. Add that to a number of other functions that are tied to being able to touch the bottom of the screen and you begin to see the picture: no bottom strip = gimped iPhone.

Houston, we have a problem

Restarting and restoring the phone does nothing. This issue has been well documented by people with similar problems, and the bottom line is that the four main functions of my machine are gone with no way to fix the issue on my end.

This little fiasco has led to some creative workarounds. I won’t share all of them here – I’m still trying to get a book deal out of this – but I’ll give you a few examples. Let’s say you want to call me. You can’t just call me. You’ve got to actually send me a text so I can view it first (thankfully the “View/Ignore” buttons show up at the vertical center of the screen), then scroll up on the SMS list to the alternate call button. If I want to call someone, I have to send them a text first and go through the same backdoor method.

This baffled the Pasadena Mac Store staff, and they promptly (if you can call an entire day with no phone “prompt”) set me up with an appointment to try and fix the problem or get a replacement the next day. Hopefully, this will fix my very sad iPhone.

The larger problem here is one our love/hate relationship with communication technology.

While searching for a fix, I read a couple of articles written back in August

forecasting that these problems would start cropping up in a large percentage of phones 3-6 months after unboxing. It sounds like the forecasts are coming true and Apple will be dealing with a large number of disappointed customers – ones who’ve had just enough time to start truly relying on their phones, only to have their hearts broken when the problems start.

What this whole issue is really hinting at is the drastically lower standards we have for testing technology than we do for pretty much anything else. In the ever-quickening marketplace, companies rush products to distribution often with far less than perfect quality analysis.

On the other side, take the FDA approval process. On average, it takes a company 12 years and $359 billion to get an experimental drug to market. This sort of thorough and comprehensive testing process is unheard of in the technology world. (The MS Vista debacle is one of the most glaring examples of this sort of premature distribution.)

The end result is companies spending many more dollars on patching and fixing the problems post-distribution than if they’d just done the extra legwork when they still had the products in their hands.

This problem isn’t just relegated to phones and operating systems. Virtually every high-tech gadget released these days seems to encounter some kind of bugaboo when the product hits the wild.

I’m not logging this to blame Apple.

I love my iPhone, even with the latest bottom strip crash, the stalls, and everything else that’s lacking in the phone (read: 3G, GPS, Voice recording…). It’s still an exceptional and innovative product with an excellent customer support staff to handle any problems. I’m certain that Apple will come through and fix the problem or replace my faulty unit.

The point of writing this is to highlight the different levels of quality standards for things upon which we are seemingly equally reliant. Surely I’d rather have higher standards for the products that I actually put into my body. But on the day that your central line of communication to the outside world crashes, there’s little consolation when you consider that the problem might have been avoided if it’d undergone another couple months of testing.

It seems nowadays that everything released is stamped with a “Beta” label and shipped off for human consumption. The question I pose to you is this: how much are you willing to sacrifice in terms of QA standards to have these next generation products quicker?


A day before this post was published I had my Genius Bar appointment at the Apple store in Pasadena.  Long-story-short, they replaced the phone lickety split with a smile on their face.  No manager involvement, no questions or prodding with the phone to try to get it working while I waited.  My genius bar helper just walked to the back, picked up a new phone and brought it out to me.  That easy – 5 minutes of setting up the new phone in store and I was walking out a happy customer.  Oh, and what’s more is that the new phone synced in perfectly with the old phone as if I’d lost nothing at all – music, notes, photos, contacts, emails, even recent call history was all still perfectly in tact a couple minutes after plugging it in. I’ve replaced a few phones in the last couple years, and I’ve gotta say that this sort of backup syncing without having to re-enter 100+ contacts makes the process so simple and painless that it’s really hard to bear any hard feelings.

It’s customer service experiences like this that really make me happy to be an iPhone owner.  When asked about if they’d seen a lot of replacements like this, the service guy conceded that they had seen several in the last month, but that they didn’t seem out of the ordinary based on the fact that the iPhone is still 1st gen and they’re working out a lot of these issues… he continued by saying that their mandate on the customer end is to just “be cool” about it and replace the phones outright once hardware problems are identified like this one.   So, one bad iPhone does not an epidemic make, but if you do encounter a hardware problem with yours, make a Genius Bar appointment (it’s free if you’re under warranty) and get it worked out in store.