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Summary:

The smartphone market is moving so quickly that consumers are finding improved devices just a few months after they bought the “latest and greatest” handset. But a disturbing trend is growing as device makers keep cranking out new devices: more smartphones are shipping with major bugs.

The smartphone market is moving so quickly that the “latest and greatest” handset is often upstaged within an instant. What used to be a refresh period of 12 to 18 months or longer is now down to a handful of months at best for some, even if many newer devices offer only slightly improved specifications over older models. The speed of this market is so fast that not even the handset makers and carriers can keep up. I’m noticing a disturbing trend of devices getting released with major software issues and missing features.

Motorola’s Droid 2 is the most recent example of this problem. The handset launched on Aug. 12, and already has an over-the-air software update for feature enhancements like scrolling through text messages and improved Microsoft Exchange synchronization. Engadget Mobile has installed the update and claims it does nothing to address a signal issue noticed with their review unit.

Samsung’s Galaxy S line of handsets may also have been rushed to market, or not tested as much, due to time constraints. This series of smartphones is available around the world and on all four major U.S. carriers, but has a problem using GPS for accurate locations, hobbling an otherwise excellent device. Samsung has recognized the problem, and a Samsung company representative tweeted that a solution is being tested and should be available in September, but how did such a key feature bug make it past quality control testing?

I could come up with more examples on every platform and vendor in this space; Apple released iOS 4.0.1 after the iPhone 4 hit the market to correctly show the bars of signal strength, and like I suggested, the company also ended up providing free bumpers and cases to reduce signal loss when the phone is held a certain way. It’s worth noting that when Gray Powell was field testing the iPhone 4 before launch — and before leaving it behind in a bar — the device was disguised by such a bumper, which may have masked a potential signal problem.

Luckily, the handset makers can adjust software on the fly in this extremely competitive market, thanks to relatively seamless over-the-air updates and upgrades. Once a software issue is found, it can be resolved, tested and pushed to devices en masse. However, the ease of upgrading shouldn’t be a crutch, nor an excuse to quickly launch buggy devices into this fast-paced market.

My colleague Liz notes that launch-now-fix-later practices are rampant in the general software market as well, with many mobile apps and web products getting quick updates for missing, broken and unforeseen features in the hours after launch. It seems the software-as-a-service mentality is becoming adopted by the technology space at large.

There’s definitely a time and place for SaaS, but I’m not convinced that the smartphone market is it. As smartphones continue to expand beyond the geek crowd and into the consumer electronics domain, handset makers need to better test devices and stop relying on software updates to address what should be working in the first place.

Related research on GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

To Ship or Not Ship: Product Launch in the Smartphone Era

By Kevin C. Tofel

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  1. particularly with the CDMA phones, many phones get quickly converted(or ‘flashed’) to alternative carriers such as metroPCS and cricket. once flashed they typically can not be updated without breaking. these users are typically stuck with the bugs indefinitely. even when there is an update it is rare for users flash their own phone and the shops typically charge quite a bit to install an updated firmware especially for the newer high end phones.

    if you are not a geek hanging out in places like howardforum you are most likely out of luck.

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  2. This has always been a problem with smartphones. I remember the early Nokia ones requiring early firmware updates.

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  3. Apple knew about the antenna and decide it would not matter to customers. Believing that it was only tested with a case is sophomoric and is easily disabused. Idiot.

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    1. Exactly — I’m betting Apple has all kinds of observations on how people hold their phones and knows that very, very few hold them in a way that would cause a problem. If the tech press hadn’t made such a big deal about it (was that Gizmodo getting even) it wouldn’t have even been noticed by actual users. Remember, Consumer Reports didn’t have a problem, or even notice, until the tech press went nuts.

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  4. Mark Hernandez Tuesday, August 24, 2010

    Like the fast pace of smartphone introductions, this article also sounds like it was “rushed to market.” You’re over-generalizing about a situation that’s very complex. Your conclusions are confused, or at least not informative.

    All the manufacturers HATE doing updates and dealing with consumer complaints and want to keep it to a minimum. And there are at LEAST a hundred tradeoffs that are being balanced by each mfgr in their own unique way and style.

    The Gray Powell reference you made above was especially inappropriate, given what we all NOW know about Apple’s testing facilities, and that they’ve known about this “tradeoff” for quite some time, which we also know only affects a small minority of people in situations that are almost impossible to quantify.

    Even big companies like Apple, for instance, may not have known that the media (and the competition) would take something like that tradeoff and endlessly perpetuate the massive misunderstanding of it, as you have done here, as indicated by you saying that because the phones were hidden in bumpers (you meant to say “case”) they may not have noticed the “problem” when we know it to be a “tradeoff.”

    Furthermore, the tech blogger’s view of the situation is very different than the consumer’s, who ignores the whole bug/update situation and only pays attention for the few days that they’re making a decision about which new phone to get, and perhaps to the first month of ownership of a newly introduced device.

    So what I am saying is that your article is not informative and needs a little more work, and perhaps should be a little more limited in its focus.

    It might have been better to try and analyze the situation a little more deeply and see if there are worsening trends that can be attributed to certain manufacturers or platforms using real measurements.

    And after normalizing for the rapidly expanding marketplace, including the increase in phone complexity, then help your reader to conclude whether or not things are REALLY getting out of control, or whether it just appears to tech bloggers that they are.

    We would truly like to know and expect proof. I mean, you are writing for your reader’s benefit aren’t you?

    One thing we DO know, is that not all manufacturers are created equal. Apple makes both the hardware and the software with no carrier influence. Other manufacturers just make the hardware, which is rebranded by someone else, and then perhaps mixed with a generally available OS, and then the carriers may insert their software and restrictions, not to mention the complexity of device fragmentation. Are you accounting for Apples and oranges comparisons? (sorry :-)

    Plus, with new phone introductions it’s just impossible to test for that last 2% of problems that only the real-world will find. Is that being factored in?

    On the iPhone, for instance, the phone gets updated DAILY with app updates. Or does that not matter? And if not, why not? Where do you draw the line?

    Yeah, it’s complicated. We all can agree on that.

    Mark Hernandez
    Information Workshop

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    1. “Apples and oranges comparisons” LOL!

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  5. Mobile devices have always shipped with major software bugs. These issues could be easily found and reproduced 10 years ago, but the knowledge and mindset of the consumer at that time was vastly different to those in the present day. Most bugs on devices are ignored by users even now. Instead of believing there could be something wrong with the device they “fell in love with” and are now committed to for the next 2-3 years, they instead place the blame for most errors on the network or themselves. There is no desire to be accused of raising a false alarm and failing under the dreaded “user error” category.

    I could describe handsets released an age before the iPhone from the world’s largest manufacturers that “soft reset” while in operation or left idle, infrequently wipe the Recent Calls list, frequently lose reception during certain cell handover scenarios, crash when highlighting specific entries in contacts etc. Yesteryear these problems were ignored but today everyone has a “tech-head” in their social-group, and this person will have a reasonably good understanding of how to identify a bug. These are the types of people that raise the alarm today on the “geek” handsets such as the Droid 2, EVO and so on. These are not however the mass market devices nor average users; feature phones still rule over the Average Joes. These users are not readers of technology blogs or gadgets websites, and they will not be doing searches for bugs on their Samsung or Motorola device, as they will be placing the blame for their next unsent SMS on poor signal strength rather than a problem with the device.

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  6. That is a nice observation, but I agree with Mark on that you may be guilty of overgeneralizing. The discrepancy that you see (to me) is due to the difference in ownership of the hardware and software, especially in case of Android.

    Further, as users/bloggers, we are getting hyper sensitive to these issues. It is not that there were no bugs in earlier phones. Just that we expect everything to be foolproof. For the most part, manufacturers are able to deliver on those promises. Also, given that software issues are relatively easy to fix and the software itself is constantly updated, some issues may slip through the cracks.

    As a community, we should be little tolerant. What I would not like the manufacturers is to not admit these mistakes and take corrective actions. For example, Apple making up lame excuses for iPhone 4 antennagate issue is not acceptable. Own up the issues and take corrective actions.

    In general, consumers are very forgiving :)

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  7. Nothing new here, we all now how fast some manufacturers are in launching and then removing handset models, because of constant modifications right from the basic driver level.

    Then, there are other manufacturers who spent years stabilising one platform and then launching multiple handsets based on the same platform.

    Hence, there will always be users willing to try out new features quicker, thereby sacrificing phone stability, while the others will stick with one basic device for years, thereby sacrificing features.

    All this points to the need for the phone feature set to stabilise, so that the phone itself can stabilise.

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  8. Lawyer Macintosh Jones Wednesday, August 25, 2010

    I think this is the result of 2 processes.
    First, all the Android vendors are tripping over themselves as they furiously rush product out the door in a seemingly desperate attempt to keep up with the undisputed leader of the mobile technology industry (that would be Apple of course).
    Secondly, the Android vendors are largely molded with a Microsoft mentality where they don’t fix all the bugs in there exiting product BEFORE moving on to the next bright and shiny thing. Do you realize that thousands of bugs that where originally found in Windows 95 are still in Windows 7 ! It is truly outrageous that consumers basically are purchasing a defective product from the get-go with the maker’s full intent to never fix its defects. Most companies could be sued for consumer fraud for such practices but somehow the software industry can escape prosecution from this act.

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  9. Wellington von Hildenberg III Wednesday, August 25, 2010

    JUNE 2007 – EVERYTHING CHANGED

    I think you can trace the start of this frantic pace of endless non-stop phone upgrades to one and only one factor.

    It happened around June 29,2007 and its called the iPhone. This event is etched in stone and marks the official beginning of the smart-phone revolution. A phone revolution started in Cupertino, California when Steve issued Apple’s first smartphone to ordinary consumers. The mobile communication world has basically been in a state of shock and awe every since this glorious event took place.

    Yep it change EVERYTHING ! The cellular phone industry has never been the same since.

    Anybody who loves their new Smartphone whether its Android,Blackberry OS6,WebOS or whatever OWES much gratitude to one Steven Paul Jobs for putting that device in your hands.

    Listen to me NOW and believe me LATER. If there was never an iPhone there would be absolutely no smartphone/superphone market today and that’s a fact Jack!

    All you smartphone users can thank Steve later. :-P

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    1. Wellington, while I don’t necessary dispute what you say, you’ve answered a question nobody here asked. :)

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  10. As they say the old Google mantra goes, “Launch early, and iterate often.”

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