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Volume Up is a regular column on consumer technology and digital ecosystems by Reticle Research principal analyst Ross Rubin.
In the high-stakes smartphone market, exceptional durability is one of the key requirements for success.
It’s important for the lofty goal of customer satisfaction and for the bottom line of avoiding returns and in-warranty repairs. And if you aspire to make “the best” as Apple does, it’s inherent in your brand promise. How often have we heard its executives over the years rebuke and disavow “junk?”
Achieving durability and resilience to damage is particularly challenging for a smartphone — a portable device that consumers use constantly throughout the day is often crammed into pockets, dropped onto floors, left on hot dashboards and subject to other extremes of duress. But the recent controversy regarding the vulnerability of the new iPhones to bending revisits the question of what is abuse and what can customers do to lessen their chances of damage regardless of liability if they’re still concerned.
For their part, top-tier manufacturers subject their devices to tolerance tests for many kinds of adverse connections. As Apple recently showed journalists, the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus were subject to more testing than any previous model. That would make sense given the dramatic screen size and girth changes that characterized the new models. But despite its extensive efforts, there are often conditions in the real world that cannot be anticipated or adequately simulated prior to launch.
With volumes in the millions — sometimes tens of millions in the case of leaders such as Apple and Samsung — there are invariably consumers who have problems with their phones and those who damage their phones. Apple has had to endure the bent sticks and stones of parodists ranging from YouTube amateurs to late-night talk show hosts. Like drops and spills, this is part of the abuse that comes with the abuse of being a top-tier phone manufacturer.
However, Apple is simply looking at the number of cases that are being reported. And if you’ve shelled out for a new iPhone that’s impersonating Gumby, you’re pretty likely to report it. The bottom line is, if it’s a widespread problem, it probably represents some kind of defect. But if it’s been a handful of folks as the company claims, that likely indicates some kind of exceptional case.
Warranty provider SquareTrade has already confirmed that it is receiving far more reports of other kinds of damage to the new iPhone than the kind of bending that has become notorious because of the power of social media. That’s also after SquareTrade reported right after launch that the iPhone 6 was actually fairly durable. Consumer Reports also issued its own report on the bending issue, claiming it’s not that widespread after all.
The main caveat is time, which will reveal if the iPhone bending issue is systemic and comes with repeated exposure to pressure and if Apple needs to make some kind of gesture as it did with the iPhone 4’s antenna. In that case, Apple would take responsibility, but consumers can still take action. Consumers should be able to trust their phones to withstand a moderate level of hardship as part of this daily use. Those who think they might exceed it have access to a range of options — from protective cases to insurance plans — to help protect their investments.
Such options shouldn’t be necessary to avoid damage. However, they are used by millions on phones that haven’t had the kind of bad publicity of the new iPhones and are relatively small investments compared to the prices of the phones themselves. No doubt enterprising accessory makers will seek to create products that reinforce what some fear could be a vulnerable area.
Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research and founder and editor of the crowdfunding product site Backerjack. He also blogs about the tech industry at Techspressive.
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