With manufacturers bringing out handset portfolios for every operating system imaginable, there are bound to be problems.
The combined pressure of being first to market while boasting as many features as possible means that handset ‘issues’ are becoming more commonplace.
This was a lesson Sony Ericsson learnt the hard way last week, when two of its flagship phones were found to have software problems.
The news came just one week after Orange European chief Olaf Swantee spoke at a Financial Times conference, highlighting the volume of handset returns in the mobile industry.
Swantee says mobile handset returns rates are well above the average for consumer electronics, and that operators need to work with manufacturers to
resolve the issue.
Around five million units are returned to Orange each year, 15% of the 30 million devices sold – a figure that dwarfs the rest of the electronics industry, which sees average returns rates of between 2% and 9%.
Swantee says this is an industry-wide issue and can depend on the manufacturer. Orange is actively working with manufacturers to try and reduce returns rates, and is encouraging other operators to follow suit.
Handset faults can be attributed to a number of issues, not least the fact that the industry, which once centred on devices that simply sent texts and made calls, is now dealing with mini-computers that work on a number of operating systems.
The market is changing, an operator source tells Mobile, and there are lots of different operating systems, including Symbian, Android and Linux.
The source says: ‘I think it is adding extra complexity. Manufacturers need to perform more testing and must not rush products to the market. It’s about not trying to do too many things at once.
‘A new platform requires a longer testing process and manufacturers need to perform more checks before they give it to the network.’
However, the source admits: ‘We probably need to work more closely with manufacturers than we do already.’
Manufacturers should not be releasing several products on several platforms, says Orange’s head of device product management, Sohail Shah. He adds: ‘They should look at the same platform and work on the stability of that platform.’
Devices are not as reliable as they were a few years ago and increasing complexity will decrease this further, says Strategy Analytics head of wireless practice Neil Mawston. He adds: ‘This is true across all channels – less simplicity means less reliability.’
Pressure to come to market early is also a factor. Each manufacturer wants to be better than the next, and flagships need to be out for Q3 – a prime time for the busy Christmas period.
Generally, the more complex the device, the more likely it is to be returned, says Mawston. He adds: ‘The number of faults has increased in the last couple of years – it does seem to be an underlying trend.’
Software issues are a particular problem. Mawston says: ‘It is especially bad in software – more engineers are put into software development and there are high returns rates.’
However, Mawston thinks Swantee’s figure of 15% ‘seems quite high’, adding: ‘We have a figure of 5% to 10%.’
There may also be an element of manufacturers rushing to market and operators not testing as thoroughly as they should have done. One operator source tells Mobile: ‘As a network, we carry out rigorous testing with all the vendors we work with.’
Though he does admit: ‘The speed that we refresh our portfolios has an effect on the testing. We do between two and five cycles of testing, but the fact that portfolios are being refreshed so regularly does have an impact.’
The networks agree that the manufacturers need to do more work so they ‘give out a product and it is ready’. Another operator source says: ‘We shouldn’t be testing hardware and software.’
Shah adds: ‘There is a need in the industry as a whole to increase quality and the performance of products. Manufacturers have got themselves into the position where they are forced to churn out new products.’
The network source highlights that ‘there is more competition’, but says: ‘We as a network wouldn’t sign something off that had issues. Sometimes when you speed products into the market you do not see the problems. We need to have confidence in our supplier.’
Mawston says operators need to have stricter testing, but this could push costs higher (by 1%-2%). The networks are already involved, to differing degrees, in handset testing. Some operators have looked at getting more involved to ensure customers get the ‘best experience’.
One source says: ‘Operator testing is something we have started to explore
with key manufacturers, we do try and get it on more complex devices.’
Orange’s testing process is a rigorous one, explains Shah. He says: ‘The way our validation works is that, for the first six months we work with product vendors, then we break it down into hardware – how robust is the product? Then software.’
Shah thinks ‘a dramatic step’ needs to be taken by handset vendors to increase the quality of their products overall. He says: ‘Imagine if you bought a car and it kept breaking. We are working closely with handset and chipset vendors to ensure it doesn’t happen.’
From a UK perspective, Orange is focused on customer experience and ‘what we put in customers’ hands’, says Shah, adding: ‘I will not launch a product in the UK unless it is good enough. There have even been incidents where we haven’t launched a product.’
There are thousands of tests through to the release date, Shah explains. ‘Post launch, we look at products returned and if we believe something is not good, we will pull it.’
So what can be done? A lot is working through the pain points – ‘it’s just time really’, says Mawston. ‘Working on the experience curve, people work through the pain. Investing money – more software engineers from PCs and consumer electronics, and more time.’
Or manufacturers could always make devices simpler. Mawston says: ‘There is always a “feature war” where people are trying to add more features than the next guy – customers are getting more features regardless of whether they want them.’
The sheer volume and complexity of operating systems is causing major problems for networks. The Satio was Sony Ericsson’s first Symbian device.
Manufacturers would be well advised to take a leaf out of Apple’s book. The device giant has stuck to one platform that works and updated it. Although it may take pain and patience, the more careful manufacturers will be sure to win.