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The iPhone Takes Some Hits

Ted Landau's User Friendly View - The iPhone Takes Some Hits

August 28th, 2008

Given my reputation as a Mac "expert," I am often asked for advice about purchasing Apple products. In recent weeks, the question I have most often been asked is a disconcerting one: "I am thinking about buying an iPhone. But I have been hearing reports about its unreliability. Should I be worried? Should I wait for the problems to be fixed before I purchase an iPhone? Should I not get an iPhone at all?"

My answer is no. That is, no, you don't have to wait. And no, you certainly don't have to abandon your plans to get an iPhone altogether. If you are ready to buy an iPhone, now is as good a time as any. However, I would qualify this answer a bit. There are two significant problems behind these questions. And you should at least be aware of them before making a final decision. Further, beyond a common ability to make iPhone owners unhappy, these two problems are quite different and have different implications for the future of the iPhone.

3G connection hassles

The first problem concerns poor signal strength for 3G connections. Obviously, this only affects the iPhone 3G; original iPhone owners need not be concerned. The basic complaint is that the iPhone 3G can have trouble finding and maintaining a 3G network connection. The contention is that this is specific to the iPhone, not the 3G network in general. What's the evidence for this? Users report that other 3G-capable smartphones connect to the 3G network just fine at the same location where the iPhone 3G is sputtering.

A further complication is that when the iPhone detects a poor 3G connection, it should automatically shift from 3G to EDGE. Too often, however, the iPhone persists in maintaining the weak 3G connection. The result is dropped calls and slow data transfer speeds. The temporary fix is to go to the Settings > General > Network and set Enable 3G to OFF. Of course, this negates the single most significant enhancement of the new iPhone.

How serious is this problem? Well, it's certainly frustrating if it affects you. The good news is that the problem appears to affect only a small percentage of iPhone users (estimates range from about 1% to 3%). And even those that are affected do not see the problem all the time. It is the nature of the Web to amplify the sound of complaints. A quick surf of the Web can easily lead you to believe that the problem is much larger than it really is. Still, when you consider that there are already millions of iPhone 3Gs in circulation, even 1% is a lot of unhappy users.

This leads to the most critical questions: What's the cause of the problem? What will be required to fix it? How soon will it be fixed?

There are several theories about the cause (see this AppleInsider article for a comprehensive analysis). The current best bet is that it is a firmware problem, one that can be addressed by an iPhone software update. Current speculation is that the iPhone 2.1 update, due in September, will contain the needed fix. [Note: iPhone 2.1 is a bigger and more significant update than the current round of 2.0.x updates that have been released thus far.]

The worst case scenario is that the cause resides in the 3G hardware and will require a physical repair to fix. This would undoubtedly be a huge mess for Apple. The logistics of an iPhone recall would be daunting; the damage to the iPhone's reputation might be greater still. While I believe this scenario to be unlikely, we can't rule it out entirely until Apple provides an official statement (and so far they have been mute, as is distressingly typical).

App Store software crashes

The second problem concerns iPhone crashes, especially crashes attributed to third-party software downloaded from the new App Store. This affects all iPhones running 2.0 software, not just the iPhone 3G.

If it were just a case of a few buggy applications occasionally crashing (bumping you back to the Home screen), this would not be worth mentioning. Unfortunately, there are two much more frustrating variations of this symptom.

In one case, users find that all of their iPhone applications suddenly start crashing on launch. While obviously distressing when it happens, it is usually simple to fix. Just shut off the iPhone and restart it. Chances are good that the "everything's crashing" symptom will not return, at least not any time soon.

In the second (and scariest) variation of this crash problem, the iPhone appears to "brick." More precisely, a crash precipitates a spontaneous restart of the iPhone, with the Apple logo popping up on the screen while the system software reloads. However, instead of eventually giving way to the Lock screen, the Apple logo never goes away; the iPhone appears hopelessly stuck in this purgatory. At this point, most standard troubleshooting techniques have no ability to resuscitate the device. As detailed by Bob LeVitus here at The Mac Observer, you will likely have to force the iPhone into recovery mode (a procedure described in this Apple article) to get things working again.

Assuming you have a recent backup of your iPhone, you shouldn't lose any data (except for possibly some custom settings and passwords). Still, a forced recovery is nothing to look forward to. It may take a couple of hours of restoring and syncing before your iPhone has returned to its pre-crash status.

As with the 3G connection problem, the good news here is that crashes that require a forced recovery are rare. My assessment, based on reading various reports of the Web, is that the symptom affects even less users that does the 3G connection problem. Some reports suggest that the odds of seeing this symptom go up as you add more and more third-party software (although no specific program appears to trigger the problem). Aside from that, I don't know of any way to eliminate the risk of this happening.

The other good news is that none-other-than Steve Jobs himself has promised that this bug (or at least something that sounds similar to this bug) will be fixed in the forthcoming iPhone 2.1 update.

Taken together

Taken together, these two problems have put a few dents in Apple's otherwise sterling reputation. With a bit of luck, both matters will be resolved by the end of September. They will then be forgotten -- like a case of hiccups that is impossible to ignore but quickly fades from memory as soon as it stops.

I certainly hope this is the case. Because if the 3G connection problem persists beyond September, I believe it will start significantly hurting iPhone sales, as users become increasingly hesitant to purchase a supposed "defective" device.

As for the crash problem, while some crash-causing bugs will be addressed by the next update, crashes on the iPhone will never go away altogether. Why? Because it is the inevitable flip side of the iPhone being "a Mac in your pocket." Unless you lead a charmed life, some application on your Mac has frozen, crashed, or otherwise caused you grief over the last month or so. We accept this as part of the reality of using a computer. We happily stay with the Mac anyway, knowing that the alternative of shifting to Windows would almost certainly be worse. If the iPhone is to truly be a "Mac in your pocket," it too will have its share of crashes and related ills, especially as third-party software proliferates. It's just part of the bargain you make when you start downloading software from the App Store.

There are certainly users out there who would prefer not to make this bargain. "I don't want or need any third-party apps," they might say. "I like the iPhone for its touch-screen interface and for the fact that I can combine my iPod and my mobile phone into one device. I even like that I can use an app like Maps occasionally. But that's it. Mainly, I want a mobile phone that I can depend on for making and receiving calls, without having to jump through hoops or read hundreds of pages of documentation."

A potential reply to such users is: "You don't want an iPhone. Get something else." But why should Apple have to turn away these customers? Perhaps, Apple could instead add a "simple mode" option to the iPhone that would provide exactly what these users want. Or perhaps Apple could introduce an "iPhone-lite" that omits all but the desired core features. Who knows? Maybe something like this is already in the works.

Ted Landau is the founder of MacFixIt, and the author of Take Control of Your iPhone and other Mac help books.

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