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Glassgate: Where Does Apple’s Responsibility End?

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Apple (s aapl) is pulling slide-on iPhone 4 cases from its retail shelves and the online store. Customers are reporting scratches and cracks caused by grit trapped between case and iPhone. Clearly, Apple wants to avoid a repeat of Antennagate. But is the company overreacting?

I don’t question the fact that Apple’s latest iPhone is susceptible to scratches, despite Apple Store employee claims that the “helicopter glass” used in its construction can withstand high velocity impacts, but I do question the iPhone maker’s responsibility regarding the glass case design when it comes to consumers.

The antenna is a different story. For users in poor coverage zones, where it might actually completely cut off signal reception, that’s a usage issue, and addressing it head-on was necessary. But scratches and cracks caused by contact with abrasive material? Not only is that a cosmetic problem, it’s also one people should be able to reasonably expect before even buying an iPhone, just by looking at the thing. Does it affect the product’s reliability? Clearly not, since the iPhone 4 is still the least likely smartphone to malfunction, according to a new SquareTrade report.

I have a case that involves a sliding component, and I use it all the time. I’m always careful to make sure the back is clean of dirt and dust before I slide the case on, but I’m also not going to be amazed or disappointed in Apple’s craftsmanship if I find scratches on the surface as a result.

My iPhone 3GS was criss-crossed with scratches by the time I retired it from service, but it also still worked fine. In fact, my girlfriend still uses it without issue, and it looks much better than the BlackBerry (s rimm) devices of friends who’ve had their phones for less than six months. No one comes up with a Watergate-based name for the way the cheap silver paint on RIM-designed bezels never fails to rub off and flake.

The iPhone 4’s design may not be perfect. It may even be more susceptible to damage than the last generation device. Is it a flaw? No. Should Apple be hand-holding consumers who can’t think logically about what might damage their devices? No. Should Apple continue to make risky design decisions that set the bar in terms of consumer electronics aesthetics? A thousand times yes.

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2 Responses to “Glassgate: Where Does Apple’s Responsibility End?”

  1. I made the mistake of purchasing a slide on case for my 3G and the back was scratched up by dust and debris. It even ended up with a gouge. I didn’t blame Apple for this, I just didn’t buy that type of case anymore. Problem solved. My 3GS ended up with not one scratch employing this “method” and thus far my 4 is in pristine shape too.
    I suppose folks may be upset because it’s glass and purportedly scratch resistant but that doesn’t equal scratch-proof. Even glass gets scratched. So in closing, think before you buy.

  2. Harrison

    Of course, you also need to consider Apple’s strategy as a consumer electronics provider. In designing their products from start to finish, inside and out, they have taken on the burden of the entire user experience. Third-party apps, for example, can cause hiccups in the iOS software, so Apple has taken control by implementing rules for their App Store. Pulling products that could potentially damage the hardware is a similar tactic.

    Please don’t get me wrong. I agree completely with this post. I just think that one of two things needs to happen: (1) Apple needs to relax their control so consumers can figure things out for themselves or (2) Users need to get used to Apple making knee-jerk decisions in order to provide the best possible user experience they think we should have.