Opinion: First Samsung, now Apple and Google. Phone makers are ushering in the age of buggy hardware
It’s not just you. Over the past year, a trend has emerged where phone manufacturers are rushing out handsets with a ton of hardware and software bugs—even more than usual.
The Galaxy Note 7’s explosive battery dominated last year’s headlines to the point where the FAA banned the phone from all flights. Samsung was forced to publicly apologize and explain how a design flaw caused the Note 7’s battery to burst into flames.
The reason for this design flaw was that Samsung wanted to beat Apple’s iPhone 7 to market. According to the New York Times, it was the pressure to beat Apple to the punch combined with the fact that Samsung increasingly felt threatened by Chinese cell phone makers like Huawei and Xiaomi that drove the company to rush the release of the Note 7.
More than a year later, now Apple and Google are facing the pressure to sell more devices at a time where mobile phone sales are beginning to plateau.
Users are paying to be beta testers
Google has a history of releasing half-baked products. For example, Google tried to create “the first social streaming media player” with the Nexus Q, but the company discontinued the product before it could launch. Google Glass was supposed to bring AR to the masses, but the high price, short battery life, and privacy concerns resulted in Google creating an enterprise-only version.
Recently, the company’s Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL phones have been getting negative press for a slew of hardware issues. The Pixel 2 XL display has a very noticeable blue shift when viewed off axis, exhibits burn-in after just a few weeks of use, and users were disappointed by its muted, inaccurate colors. The company was forced to quickly release a software update to make the display’s colors more vibrant, but the blue shift cannot be fixed with a software update. It should be noted, however, that all OLED displays shift colors slightly when viewed off axis, though not as badly as the Pixel 2 XL display.
It’s not just Google that’s using its customers as beta testers. Apple’s latest and greatest iPhone, the iPhone X, has its own slew of issues. Some customers are reporting that the handset has a “green line of death” where the display exhibits a permanent green stripe on the side of the display. Additionally, the iPhone X is experiencing unresponsive touch screens in cold weather. Apple responded by saying it was aware of the issue and that it is working on a software fix. (UPDATE: Apple released iOS 11.1.2 to fix the unresponsive iPhone X screens.)
— Lejia Peng (@fanguy9412) November 6, 2017
Samsung hasn’t escaped buggy hardware with its latest Galaxy S8 generation of phones, either. Some users have been reporting issues with the Galaxy S8 and Note 8’s mics not picking up voices. Hilariously, the fix seems to be a simple Nintendo cartridge-style blow into the mic to get it working again.
Why phone makers are continuing to rush out unfinished products
The story of phone makers releasing unfinished products is nothing new, but the fact that the Big Three (Apple, Google, and Samsung) are all facing buggy hardware is more than just an anomaly. The pressure to maintain growth year over year is pushing these companies to make more and more mistakes.
Plateauing smartphone sales is just one of the reasons why Apple, Google, and Samsung are churning out exciting but unfinished products. Each company is trying to to stay on its yearly update cycle to entice users to upgrade to the latest and greatest phone, even though consumers are sticking with their phones for longer. For most users, their two or three-year-old phone works perfectly fine for the majority of tasks, giving them little reason to upgrade to the latest device.
The Big Three are also likely feeling the pressure from budget handsets coming from China. Samsung and Apple hold the most smartphone market share, but Huawei, OPPO, Vivo, and other Chinese phone brands are nipping at their heels by offering consumers better value handsets.
OnePlus, a subsidiary of OPPO, markets its phones as “flagship killers.” The One, the company’s first phone, was a huge hit as it offered the same specs of the flagship Samsung Galaxy S5 at the time for half the price. The company has since slowly increased the price of its handsets over time, but it still offers tremendous value by omitting non-essential features like waterproofing and wireless charging. For price-conscious consumers, there’s little reason to pay $800 for a Galaxy S8+ when the OnePlus 5 offers the same CPU and more RAM for about 60% of the price.
Smartphones typically launch in the summer to get ahead of the holiday season, which is another reason why phone makers have been rushing out their unfinished handsets recently. In an uncharacteristically candid interview, Apple’s SVP of hardware engineering Dan Riccio revealed that the iPhone X wasn’t supposed to launch until 2018.
“Quite frankly, this program was on such a fast track to be offered [and] enabled this year. We had to lock [the design] very, very early,” said Riccio, which could also explain why the phone is experiencing some growing pains with its “green line of death” and unresponsive touch screen in cold weather.
The future of smartphones
As consumer thirst for new phones dwindles further, phone makers will have to decide how to recapture their imaginations. This year’s flagships have shown that the current strategy is adding features and performance that consumers haven’t been asking for. Does Face ID work better than Touch ID? Not really. Are the curved edges on the Galaxy S8 phones a must-have? Nope. Were consumers clamoring for Google to use OLED displays instead of LCD? No.
Going forward, phone manufacturers will have to come to terms with the fact that we may have reached peak smartphone. Perhaps that’s why there’s such hype surrounding emerging platforms like AR and VR to the point where even Apple is working on its own augmented reality glasses.
The future of smartphones, then, may be a re-focusing on the core experience. Things like a good camera, stable and fast software, machine learning, and long battery life will be the features that ultimately draw in customers. Features like dual cameras, AR/VR capability, and near-bezel less screens are nice to have, but are by no means essential to the smartphone experience.
At the end of the day, consumers just want something that just works and makes their lives easier. While adding shiny new features that consumers may or may not really want works to increase smartphone sales in the interim, the real battle will be fought in making the smartphone predict and act on your needs via machine learning and artificial intelligence.
Google and Apple are investing heavily into machine learning, both releasing their own machine learning SDKs for developers to easily integrate into their own apps. Siri and Google Assistant are getting smarter every day, and one day, they may be the main way we interact with our phones. Voice may very well be the new touch screen, and whoever can create the best voice and predictive smartphone experience will ultimately recapture the imagination of consumers.