The phrase ‘with great power, comes great responsibility’ is an appropriate footnote for the many groundbreaking devices to emerge in 2008 – including the 3G iPhone, Samsung Omnia, G1 Google Phone and the BlackBerry Storm.
An unfortunate by-product of the high specification mobile phones flooding the market is an increase in reports of software faults.
A large number of retail staff say that incidents of software problems are rising. So endemic is the problem that many almost expect a new phone to have errors.
Manufacturers and operators claim to be working closer together to anticipate teething problems ahead of a handset launch.
Some retailers claim they are weary about handling brand new phones, preferring to wait a few weeks before stocking them. Some staff that Mobile spoke to say the hassle of handling returns make them think twice about selling a high specification smartphone that has just been released. One Carphone Warehouse staffer says the view is even held by consumers: ‘People now ask us if we think it is better to wait.’
It seems that consumers have become an extension of the testing process, often having to install a software upgrade a few weeks after buying a smartphone. One handset expert says: ‘[Manufacturers] seem to test new phones on the public. If I wanted a new phone I would wait a while
before getting it to make sure any faults were fixed.’
One Carphone staffer says: ‘It does ruin the reputation of the phone, some people come in and complain about their phone and then other customers hear it’s not great.’
The aim of the handset testing process is to put a device through its paces;
all operators claim they carry out rigorous tests before adding a handset
to their range.
One director in the refurbishment market points out: ‘Each handset I look at has been accredited by one or all of the networks. The network would not let this be launched if it hadn’t been checked; the tech guys spend weeks and months checking handsets.’ So, what is causing the faults then?
Operator andmanufacturer clash
A phone’s hardware is first tested by the manufacturer. Nokia, for example, has 11 test centres around the world, which expose new handsets to humidity, extreme heat, excessive shaking and up to one million keys presses. But most of the software checks can only be done once the network is involved.
In general, software issues begin to surface between the device’s launch and its arrival in stores, as this is the period during which network software is applied to devices.
A phone can be in production for up to two years. But the clash of the manufacturer’s software with the operator’s settings and services is thought to be a major factor when it comes to the problems reported. As a result, some manufacturers are apparently paring down the software they add to a device. One Nokia repairer says: ‘Minimal software is put on by the manufacturer as it has to go hand-in-hand with the networks.’
Many of the faults are ironed out through constant tweaking between launch and release. Vodafone handsets go through three cycles of checks, each lasting between two and four weeks. The phones are tested for thousands of ‘scripted’ eventualities but it is the ‘unscripted’ ones that slip through the net and cause faults as the phone reaches the shop floor.
One dealer says: ‘The bells and whistles aren’t compatible, but you have to ask yourself, if manufacturers and networks put them through checks major things like freezing should have been fixed.’
Meeting launch targets
Competitive pressure is another key factor that has resulted in corners being cut in the testing process. Manufacturers want to bring their eight-megapixel phones out before their rivals, while operators want to be the first to have the latest phones. One senior manufacturer buyer says: ‘The biggest issue is when they [networks] rush it out too early.’
This is often frustrating for those selling the device. One Vodafone salesman says: ‘I realise they haven’t got the time to check everything, but it’s really annoying because it looks like we’re lying to the customer.’
Mounting pressures can mean that a handset is launched before it is ready. Networks will have strict product launches, especially with ‘hot’ phones as they are under commercial pressure to have the latest handset out quickly to catch the buying crowd.
One refurbishment source says: ‘[When a network] has got an exclusive, they want to get it out there, and they need it out there quickly.’
However, some argue that, even if there was more time, it would be impossible to check every eventuality, especially as the technology becomes more complex. The Nokia repairer says: ‘It is very difficult to test for everything, you would have to test a handset to death.’ Others disagree. One manufacturer source says: ‘Of course you can test for every eventuality, it depends on how much time and money they are willing to give.’
However, operators argue this does not explain the faults and are aware of the damaging repercussions of bringing a phone to market with errors. ‘Sometimes our competitors beat us [by getting handsets out first] but we pride ourselves on having a good testing process,’ says one operator.
Handsets are getting more complex
The complexity of devices is stretching the length of time needed for product testing. Developing increasingly high-tech phones has put yet more pressure on what can be a short testing process, especially as third-party software is introduced. One manufacturer insider says: ‘You’ve got to remember that some of these devices are like computers.’
Chip sets, components and operating systems are totally removed from the simple ‘calling and texting’ devices of even two years ago.
Devices like the BlackBerry Storm, HTC Touch Diamond, Nokia N95, Samsung Omnia and Sony Ericsson Xperia X1 have very sophisticated features, such as Windows operating systems, complex camera technology and fast processors. Naturally, the increased technology creates a proportional increase in the likelihood of things going wrong.
A good example of this might be the Nokia N95 – famous for being groundbreaking in terms of features and capability but notorious for a barrage of software faults during its initially release.
One complication is the growing presence of third-party software, such as Windows Mobile devices, which complicates the testing process.
Rather than owing to technical faults, many within the manufacturing fraternity blame handset returns on high consumer expectation and a lack of understanding. Others claim the responsibility lies with retail staff who should relay information regarding specific phones more clearly to customers at the point of sale. There is another school of thought that blames the consumer for failing to realise what it is they are buying.
One expert in the smartphone sector says: ‘There is a whole market out there for different users but I would do my research first. A lot of people don’t and just buy what is recommended.’
One manufacturer says: ‘Blaming consumers is not really fair.’ The iPhone is an example of a consumer-sensitive device. He says: ‘Apple really tears it down to what the consumer wants; the biggest and best thing it did is not listen to the tech community.’
Retail staff often sell phones they like, so if someone in store is a fan of, say, the Sony Ericsson Xperia X1, he or she could be more likely to push it to all customers, even if it is not appropriate.
Some stores have better commissions with certain handsets, especially
when operators have volume targets on certain products.
As the re