New Smartphones Arriving Faster, But With More 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

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