iphone bent

Image courtesy of Apple

Apple: Bent, But Not Broken
| published Sept. 25, 2014 |

By Thursday Review staff

When something goes wrong at Apple, it can be a big deal. The company has long been associated with cutting edge technology and the coolest of the cool apps and gadgets, and its empire is built largely upon the reliability and cache of its sleek, dazzling products.

Back years ago, when some Apple phones had a problem with reception and clarity because of a glitch antenna, Steve Jobs famously (and clumsily) suggested that people simply try holding the phone in a different way. That official reaction to a product problem caused a minor marketplace and industry fracas, and internally Apple resolved never to go down that path again.

So when the release of its new iPhone 6 was accompanied—24 hours later—by a high-impact problem, the blowback was immediate. Apple apologized to its customers, acknowledged that it had an issue, and set to work immediately to resolve the glitch as quickly as possible.

The new phone, which went on sale days ago amid lots of publicity and long lines of Apple aficionados (many of whom camped out for days to buy the new devices), contained many tre’ cool features, including a thumbprint tool and a payment platform. But one small thing the device was also supposed to do was make phone calls, and a glitch (in its iOS 8 mobile software) prevented some iPhone users from doing exactly that.

In addition, the newest phone, which is slightly larger than previous versions, has faced a withering storm of concern over its inability to sustain more than a scant few degrees of bending. As of early this week, Apple had already received an undisclosed number of complaints and returns by customers whose new phones broke or were damaged by bending, in most cases as a result of customers placing phones—as is common practice—in hip-pockets or back pockets.

On Facebook, Twitter and other social media, the brouhaha has been termed “Bendgate,” and the controversy has led to a lot of back and forth over the issue of low-rider jeans, tight jeans, and the kind of jeans that would otherwise appear to painted on save for the outline of the phone. In addition, the lightweight aluminum and composite shell—which is obviously unable to sustain the routine pressure placed on it if its user sits on it while it is stored in a pocket—may be a case of less is less, rather than less is more. Some newer phones have also been shown to bend very easily when stored in a front pocket, and in cases where the user leaves it in the front pocket when climbing into an automobile or sitting at a desk.

Apple went to work immediately on the problem of the software, and provided users with ways to resolve the glitch. One easy solution was to reverse the software update, and Apple quickly provided guidance on how to do that. Many other customers simply carried their iPhone 6 back to the nearest Apple store to get a quick fix implemented on site.

The issue of the bending and breaking, however, may be more problematic for both Apple and its millions of loyal customers. At issue, at least in part, is the age old struggle between form and function. Customers often express an interest in smaller, lighter phones and handheld devices. But smaller can sometimes be too small, especially depending on the type of applications being used. So, some phones are larger—offering decidedly more surface area and screen space.

This tug of war often pushed phone design toward the very edge of what one might call a tablet (larger phones), while other phones meet the demand of those users who simply want a small enough device to be placed in a purse, pocket, or backpack. Optics also plays a part, as some applications on a phone require more surface area than others. Apple and Samsung have been engaged in a small rear-guard battle over optimal surface area for several years, but neither side has prevailed in a market where new applications are introduced almost on a weekly basis. The iPhone 6 is slightly larger in surface area than its Apple predecessors; the iPhone 5s, for example, is about 4.1 inches long, whereas the new iPhone 6 is nearly 5.5 inches long. More surface area means more chances for bending when stored in tight spaces, like front pockets.

Most manufacturers of phones—Samsung, Nokia, LG, Apple, Sony—officially discourage users from placing phone in pants pockets (especially back pockets!), since the resulting damage can sometimes be fast, and extreme. Designers with several of the major device makers have been experimenting off and on for several years with materials which will allow for maximum flexibility in pockets and other tight spaces, though no phone—as yet—offers more than a tiny degree of flex before damage can occur.

Apple says that only a handful of customers have complained directly about the bending problem (on Thursday the company said it had received only nine genuine complaints), but only time will tell if Bendgate will go away.

Still, despite a few glitches and a lot on chatter on social media (a You Tube video on the bendgate problem has been viewed more than six million times this week), Apple’s rollout of the iPhone 6 has been a sale success. As of Monday it had shipped out approximately ten million units to retailers and buyers.

Related Thursday Review stories:

Sony Sales Slump; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; Sept. 18, 2014.

Are Mobile Games Killing the Console? Isaac Fink; Thursday Review; July 30, 2014.