Reliability: Operating Systems Fail the Most
The more technology you pack into a device, the more things can break. And smartphones must be the poster child for carrying a dizzying number of bells and whistles inside the shell--microphones, speakers, touchscreens, cameras, an operating system, applications, an accelerometer, compasses . . . the list goes on. (Click on the chart image to see our survey results on device reliability from major manufacturers.)
With all that stuff in there, you would expect high rates of component and software failures. And you would be right. In our survey, 31 percent of smartphone owners reported one or more significant problems with their device before it was two years old.
And readers told us that when something fails in a smartphone, in about 35 percent of cases it's the operating system.
"My biggest complaint is that the response is slow and the interface is clunky!" says Sprint HTC Touch Pro user John Abercrombie. "Also, sometimes it 'locks up' the OS and the only way out is to remove and reinsert the battery."
Sprint customer and Palm Treo user Duane Calvin says his phone's OS "now reboots itself several times a day; I have no idea when it has shut down."
Of the major smartphone brands, HTC and LG phones had higher rates of OS failure than their peers. Of HTC owners who reported a problem, 44 percent said the culprit was the operating system software. Thirty-nine percent of problems with LG devices could be blamed on the OS.
After the OS, breakdowns in miscellaneous features such as BlueTooth connections or GPS radios and compasses were the cause of 24 percent of problems, surveyed smartphone owners said.
These failures, survey takers told us, were especially prevalent in HTC and Samsung smartphones. In HTC devices, a feature failure was the problem in 29 percent of cases; in Samsung phones, in 30 percent of total problems reported. Meanwhile, owners of Apple, LG and Palm phones reported lower-than-average numbers of feature breakdowns.
Battery issues accounted for about 11 percent of reported problems. Only HTC, LG, and Samsung had significantly higher incidences of battery problems than the average of all handset manufacturers. Apple and Palm owners reported marginally less battery trouble.
We also asked about severe problems that rendered phones impossible to use. Among all those who reported problems (regardless of the type of phone they use), about 13 percent said their problem was "severe" enough to flatline the phone.
LG owners reported fewer severe problems. LG phones developed just as many problems as other phones, but only 8 percent of those problems rendered the phone impossible to use. Palm users reported a higher incidence of severe problems, at 19 percent--or six points above the average.
Still, 64 percent of smartphone owners say they are "very" or "extremely" satisfied with the reliability of their devices.
Seventy-four percent of iPhone users said they were highly satisfied overall with the reliability of their phone--the highest score of any smartphone. Samsung owners, meanwhile, reported the lowest rates of overall satisfaction, at only 55 percent.
For Now, They're Still New Toys
Smartphones are a relatively new technology. The first iPhone, for example, hit the market only a few years ago--on June 29, 2007, to be exact. The devices, and the networks that connect them, have certainly improved since then. But as our survey results show, in many ways, they're still a work in progress.
Users report high numbers of technical breakdowns in their devices, a poor record of completely fixing those problems by tech support departments, difficult-to-use phones, and slow and/or unreliable wireless network coverage. Yet, as our survey also shows, satisfaction levels remain strangely high among users in those same areas.
Why is that? It may be that consumers are still a bit dazzled by the allways-on, connect-anywhere technology that smartphones are. So dazzled, perhaps, that they're willing to overlook a few basic shortcomings in the devices, as well as in the companies that make, sell, and support them--even as users pay a high premium every month to own one.
IDC's Will Stofega offers the classic example of this. The iPhone's OS does not allow you to cut and paste text or images--from an online news article to an e-mail, for example. This, of course, would never be tolerated in another type of computer. Are iPhone users caught in Steve Jobs' "reality distortion field"? Maybe so. But our survey suggests that that distortion field isn't the sole property of just one smartphone maker, but, perhaps, of all of them.
In short, smartphone owners should expect more. Here's hoping that, as smartphones become less novel, expectations will rise--and consumers will begin to see the same reliability and service levels that they routinely demand from other devices.