iPhone 4 Complaints Mounting: A Rocky Rollout

The reception problem isn't the only issue causing new iPhone 4 owners to cry foul

Verizon mocked Apple and its new iPhone 4 in a New York Times ad this week. Promoting its flagship Droid X, Verizon's ad states: "Most importantly, it comes with a double antenna design. The kind that allows you to hold the phone any way you like and use it just about anywhere to make calls."

This marketing shot, of course, took dead aim at iPhone 4's well-documented antenna reception flaws and Apple's advice to consumers to hold the iPhone differently.

However, the reception problem isn't the only issue causing new iPhone 4 owners to cry foul. On Apple's own discussion forum, more than a thousand people have commented on the iPhone 4's proximity sensor not working properly.

Then there's the new iOS 4 causing some apps to crash, and app developers scurrying to fix them, say industry watchers.

[ Look beneath the iPhone 4's sleek design and you'll find a durability risk, reception improvements that may fall flat, and a videoconferencing feature that works only for a few people, says CIO.com's Tom Kaneshige. ]

Apple's impassionate response to problems has only created angst among iPhone owners who have shelled out hundreds of dollars for an iPhone 4 and an AT&T service contract. Apple Geniuses have reportedly been instructed by Apple to tell unhappy iPhone 4 owners that bad reception performance due to gripping the phone in certain places is "a fact of life in the wireless world," according to documents leaked to Boy Genius Report.

Late last week, Apple reversed course and said the reception problem lies not in the hardware design. Rather, Apple said the problem stems from the way an algorithm calculates bars of reception, and promised to deliver a software update.

All of this has the potential to upset Apple's stellar customer service record. "The antenna problem and Apple's screwy software response has become kind of a running joke," says analyst Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group. "I'm kind of surprised at how Apple is handling the problems because they are bleeding credibility needlessly in their attempts to cover them up."

iPhone 4's Hardware Takes a Hit

On Apple's discussion board, a user claimed that the iPhone's proximity sensor wasn't properly detecting when the iPhone was held next to the face. Results? Hang ups, calls put on mute, numbers dialed accidentally. "This occurs on 90% of my calls," wrote the user. The comment spurred a horde of iPhone owners complaining about the same thing.

When the iPhone 4 debuted a couple of weeks ago, CIO.com pointed out three big cons beneath its sleek design. The first drawback: two glass surfaces make it more breakable, as opposed to one glass on previous iPhone models. Broken or scratched glass is a big reason iPhones find their way to a repair shop, says Aaron Vronko, CEO of Rapid Repair, which provides iPod and iPhone repair services.

It's still too early to tell if two glass surfaces on the iPhone 4 will prove to be a problem, but early signs don't bode well for Apple. "Despite claims that the iPhone 4 glass is very scratch resistant, reports are already coming in of users with shattered screens," says Vince Tseng, vice president of marketing at SquareTrade, a warranty provider for iPhones and iPads. "We know of anecdotal problems with yellow spots on the screen and signal issues, which have both been widely publicized by the media."

On the upside, SquareTrade has seen better reliability with each new iPhone model, "which suggests that Apple's manufacturing process is continually improving and this may affect the overall reliability," Tseng says. For instance, SquareTrade says the iPhone 3GS is 20 percent more reliable than the iPhone 3G, due to improvements in the quality of the touchscreens.

But this time around with the iPhone 4, Apple is using a much higher percentage of their own hardware--namely, its A4 chip--that may result in less reliability, counters Enderle. "When an OEM does this, they generally discover that all of that research and development that was invested to solve problems by a chip vendor actually did result in something they don't now have," he says.

iOS 4: Software Shortcomings?

Like most major operating system upgrades, iOS 4 (Apple's new name for the iPhone OS) has had a rocky start. Consumers have leveled complaints ranging from system hang-ups to crashing apps to massive battery drain at iOS 4.

None of this, though, is out of the ordinary for a new OS. "With any major new release things surface in configurations that were not tested and need to be resolved," says Gartner analyst Van Baker.

Nevertheless, iOS 4 could have had a better debut, analysts say. Apple doesn't give the greatest lead times for developers, Enderle says, so it's not surprising to see some breakages as the app developers catch up.

The lead time Apple did provide wasn't impressive, either, says Krishna Subramanian, co-founder of Mobclix, an operator of a mobile ad exchange marketplace. "Pre-release expectations for iOS 4 were very low given how buggy the beta builds were," he says. "However, it seems like the last few weeks of work from the Apple engineering team has gone a long way and they were able to smooth out 99 percent of the issues that the last iOS beta had."

Now it's up to developers to stop apps from crashing on the iPhone. But it won't be easy as some developers become frustrated with Apple's lack of multi-version support. In the past, developers could focus on one device, one OS. Today, developers must build for both iPhone OS 3.1 for previous iPhone models and iOS 4. Developers also want to bring native apps to the iPad, which still runs iPhone OS 3.2.

"Developing for iOS seems to be heading in the same direction as Android, such as a variety of devices and different screen resolutions," Subramanian says. "It's hard to support it all. Granted, Apple isn't nearly as bad as Android, but it's not as simple as just developing for one device, which was the nicest part about developing for the iPhone."

How Will Apple Respond?

Apple is pushing hard on upgrades, says Subramanian, and it looks like most developers will be on board with iOS 4.0 by the end of the year. Moreover, Gartner's Baker expects Apple to deliver a maintenance release or two within the next couple of months that will address most of the software issues that have surfaced.

With the iPhone 4, however, hardware flaws present a bigger problem. The next version of the iPhone will naturally be more stable, say Enderle, although it's unclear if Apple will increase hardware testing given the leaks of the iPhone 4 prototypes. One prototype found (or possibly stolen) at a Silicon Valley bar and sold to Gizmodo belonged to an Apple engineer testing wireless coverage in the field.

Can Apple afford to wait for iPhone 5? Given the serious problems plaguing iPhone 4, says Enderle, the right answer could be a recall. "Customer loyalty is one of the most valuable and strategic assets they have and wasting that to avoid a needed recall would be penny wise and pound foolish," he says, adding, "No one wants to face Jobs' wrath if they had to actually do one."

Tom Kaneshige covers Apple and Networking for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline. Email Tom at tkaneshige@cio.com.

Tags Appleapple iphoneconsumer electronicsmobile phonesiphone 4PhonesiPhonesmartphones

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Tom Kaneshige

CIO (US)

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