Two Defective iPhones in Less Than Two Months: What’s Going on Here?

Why, after less than two months, the iPhone is still not blowing me away

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I’m sending my iPhone back to Apple for repair this weekend for the second time, after only a month and a half or so of total ownership. My first piece suffered the dead-zone problem along the bottom edge of the touchscreen, and now last night, my brand-new replacement phone’s earpiece speaker conked out for no apparent reason after only a few weeks of use. This in itself is notable—that the iPhone seems to be suffering from some isolated but pretty serious manufacturing defects in its infancy. I could rant and rave about this fairly cut-and-dry issue along with everyone else, but instead this surprising second failure (and the second switch back to my previous phone while I wait for a new iPhone from Apple Care, God bless ’em) got me thinking more broadly about why, when asked how I like the iPhone, I invariably reply “Eh, it’s OK.”

Ultimately, the iPhone is still, well, a mobile phone: A nearly classless device that has integrated itself deeper into the daily lives of modern humans around the world than arguably any other piece of technology to date. Something that gets left in taxicabs, gets a drink spilled on it, gets dropped in the dirt, gets carried around in pockets and purses along with keys, coins and who knows what else every waking hour. To have a device this personal, this integral to day-to-day life, be the product of such a cultural moment, to be featured on local news broadcasts, to cost $600 and thus have to be guarded with your life, just doesn’t feel right. A mobile phone in today’s world is, above all, utilitarian, which sadly does not necessarily mean beautifully designed or even fun to use (especially in the U.S.). It should just get the job done.

Which brings up another point: The various incredibly simple jobs that other phones do well that the iPhone either can’t do or does poorly is frankly shameful. Some who bought in to the advance hype might have expected the iPhone to do your laundry (and might be disappointed now to find that it doesn’t). But this isn’t the kind of thing I’m talking about. I’m talking about sending files to a computer or another phone via Bluetooth; easily texting a picture to a friend or uploading one to Flickr; being able to add your own MP3 ringtones easily (wirelessly, even); or even being able to send a text message to more than one person, for heaven’s sake.

At first I didn’t think these well-reported limitations were deal breakers, because honestly, I don’t necessarily live or die by whether I can send photos I’ve just taken to my computer wirelessly or if I have to use a cable. But I can recall several instances, at both work and play, when this feature on my old phone was either very handy or actually saved my butt (when I didn’t have a data cable on me). And I damn well like having Van Halen’s “Jump” as my ringtone (something that’s possible on the iPhone only through a complex backdoor hack). That my $600 Jesus Phone can surf the Web and make calls so elegantly but can’t do some very useful, very basic things out of the box sets off something that I can only describe as consumer-electronic cognitive dissonance. You can’t begin to understand this dissonance by reading a spec sheet—it can only come after using this thing for an extended period of time. After which, of course, it’s likely too late to return it.

It all comes back, I think, to Apple’s tendency to idiot-proof its hardware, especially its consumer electronics. The fact that most mobile phones, in their complexity, can do much more than the typical user realizes is one of the main problems Apple’s design team attempted to solve with the iPhone—and for the most part, they succeeded. They refined the user interface of these basic tasks to the point that it’s a piece of cake—nay, a Joy with a capital ‘J’—for almost anyone to pick up the iPhone and start using it for a few minutes. The sacrifice, however, is that in this quest for clarity via simplicity, what is eliminated are the small but important touches that might confuse Joe Blow but that users patient enough to learn will appreciate immensely. These are what the iPhone lacks.

Aside from all that, though, it’s the access to an unlimited mobile data plan—something that remains prohibitively expensive in this country for the majority of mobile users and that I personally have never used before the iPhone—that has been truly game-changing for me. I think it’s telling, though, that I enjoy unlimited data just as much, or more, when the iPhone is in the shop and I bust out my older, cheaper (and unlocked!) smartphone (Yes, AT&T’s unlimited iPhone data plan—a bargain at $60 per month including voice—works with other phones).

Considering all these frustrating weaknesses along with an incredibly high cost of ownership of some fairly buggy hardware, and I’m starting to wonder what kind of revolt lies in store for us when first-gen iPhone users’ warranties start to expire come July ’08. Let alone next week, when you instantly burn up $600 by accidentally leaving it at the bar. So I definitely join the others who have said to wait for the next version, but in addition, I have to question whether any iteration of a super-high-end yet ultimately restrictive device such as the iPhone can tackle the huge job of being the go-to consumer electronic device for the masses, as Apple so clearly hopes. —John Mahoney