Don't drop that phone! Fragile devices threaten customer loyalty

Carmi Levy: Wide Angle Zoom (200 px)
The iPhone is a technical marvel, a full-on computer that happens to fit in your pocket. It isn't alone: The average BlackBerry is also pretty magical in its own right, as are high end phones from Nokia, HTC and a host of other vendors.

Fantastically capable as they are, don't drop yours. Don't get it wet, either. Don't stress or damage it in any way. Because if you think you can simply bring it back to the store where you got it and swap it out under warranty for a replacement unit, think again. Violate the warranty terms and you'll be buying yourself a new one.

Despite growing discontent in Apple's support forums surrounding overheating iPhone batteries --and a similarly increasing frequency of cracked screens that may very well be related to the battery issue-- the company contends there have been no confirmed iPhone 3GS overheating incidents. The company says it is investigating a mere handful of customer complaints, but isn't admitting it's got a design or production-related issue with the device. Even allowing for the usual vendor underestimation, that total number of affected units likely represents only a tiny minority of in service iPhones. Still, any blemish on a popular product can be troublesome to vendor and buyer alike.

Apple, you've got a problem

Apple's refusal to admit there may be something wrong with the iPhone's basic engineering is crucial to the future expectations of owners unfortunate enough to own a portable Apple-branded toaster oven. As long as Apple denies it's got a problem, it can easily shift the blame to the consumer. By claiming consumer behavior voided the warranty, Apple keeps a lid on its support costs.

This isn't a new strategy for Apple. Earlier this year, support forums were crackling with reports of iPhones dying after their internal moisture sensors were tripped. In those cases, Apple's response to consumers was similarly intransigent: You dropped it in water, took it to the gym for a sweaty workout, or kept it in your non-air-conditioned kitchen for an entire day while you slow-cooked Friday night supper, tough luck.

To a certain degree, I appreciate Apple's position. There are plenty of people out there who would willingly abuse a liberal product warranty and see it as a get-free-hardware card, a manufacturer-insured justification for irresponsible behavior. Why bother keeping your device protected when you can simply pick up another one, no questions asked? While there will always be customers out there who willingly abuse the system to avoid paying hundreds of dollars in repair or replacement costs, Apple's get-tough approach nevertheless puts it at risk of ticking off consumers who take a decidedly more mature approach to caring for their devices.

Our growing mobile reliance

It may seem like a trivial matter, an extension of the usual cat-and-mouse game that buyers play when they buy complex electronics only to have them fail long before their expected design life is over. But it's anything but trivial as consumers and businesses alike lean increasingly heavily on mobile devices. The industry's inability to effectively deal with durability and consumers' relative naivete in not demanding more consistent warranty terms could hinder our ability to get the most out of these otherwise game changing technologies.

Although Apple gets the headlines these days because it owns the most visible mobile technology brand, this applies to every other smartphone vendor as well. The fine print that no one reads in the excited rush to buy that shiny new wonderphone and get out of the store is coming back to bite some buyers. Left unchecked, some vendors may find themselves on the wrong side of consumer expectations.

It ain't easy being mobile

Unlike desktop PCs that just sit there for their entire lives, smartphones don't have it so easy. Even if we think we're being careful with them, they're nevertheless exposed to environments that would bring a conventional PC to its knees. We leave them in the car on a summer's day, toss them in a backpack for a mid-winter commute to work or keep them on the bathroom vanity while we shower. We don't follow the battery care instructions to the letter (or at all) and I doubt anyone anywhere can honestly claim to have never dropped the thing.

But it's hard to believe vendors couldn't foresee this kind of end-user experience. We've been carrying cell phones for a couple of decades, now, and that's given us plenty of time to get used to dealing with wireless carriers and the hardware vendors that supply them (and us) with the latest and greatest phones. Millions of us have already called our carriers with countless tales of woe, and their help desk logs are doubtless stuffed with insight into how devices fail. Hardware vendors have on occasion managed to bring toughened devices to market --Motorola stands out as a vendor that stuck with it for longer than most-- but today's buyers barely pay attention to durability.

They should.

Arm yourself

As we're peppering the in-store representative with every last question about how much memory it has, whether our neighbourhood gets decent 3G coverage and what it'll take to keep the monthly voice and data bill under three digits, we need to challenge them on durability and warranty as well. Think about how you'll be using your device, then ask what happens if it fails. Get answers in writing, if at all possible, and don't be afraid to walk if you think a given carrier and hardware vendor won't stand behind a product and a reasonably careful consumer (you, of course.)

The responsibility extends to Apple and competing smartphone vendors as well. As they decide how conciliatory or aggressive to be when responding to apparent failure patterns, they'd do well to consider how their responses might influence future buying decisions. As consumers increasingly demand fair (not overly generous, not scandalously rigid, just fair) after-sale warranty support, vendors do themselves a disservice by assuming market leadership translates into permanent customer loyalty. If anything, loyalty is the first thing that evaporates when smartphone vendors play hardball with their customers.

Carmi Levy is a Canadian-based independent technology analyst and journalist still trying to live down his past life leading help desks and managing projects for large financial services organizations. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.

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