iPhone 4 'Glassgate' Newest Apple Headache

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Apple may have another iPhone 4 problem on its hands, with some third-party cases reportedly scratching or shattering the phone's rear glass panel.

Scandal or not, the issue already has a catchy name -- "glassgate" -- as dubbed by GDGT's Ryan Block, who first reported the story. Citing unnamed sources both inside and outside Apple, Block says non-bumper iPhone 4 cases are prone to trapping particulate matter between the rear of the iPhone 4 and the case. These particles can cause scratches that quickly grow into larger fractures.

Apple has already pulled all third-party cases from its stores and started a test program to investigate the problem, Block reports. He describes a mood of panic within Apple, and for good reason: The iPhone 4's design was already a headache before this issue arose.

I have a theory for why Apple changed the iPhone's design so drastically with the iPhone 4: It wanted to look different again. To Apple's credit, the original iPhone, 3G, and 3GS spawned an industry of copycats -- black phones with curved backs and simple hardware buttons below a nearly bezel-free touch screen. The iPhone 4 was an attempt to reestablish originality, with aluminum trim, sharp edges, and two panels of glass.

The new design always struck me as an example of form over function. Yes, the iPhone 4 looks great -- "like a beautiful old Leica camera," Steve Jobs said when introducing the phone -- but sharp edges don't sit as nicely in the hand as a curved design, and two panels of glass essentially double the chances of scratching the phone. But what do I know? Apple broke its own sales records with the iPhone 4, selling 1.7 million units in the first three days.

The real trouble came in the weeks that followed, with complaints that the iPhone 4's external antenna could be interfered with by holding a finger over the lower-left side of the phone. This mainly caused service problems in areas with poor coverage, but the uproar damaged Apple's reputation and caused the company to issue free bumper cases and to allow free returns for a limited time. (Here's the whole antennagate timeline) Apple set aside $175 million to resolve the antenna issue. A survey by Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster estimated that Apple lost 880,000 sales because of antenna concerns.

If there really is an issue with cases scratching the iPhone 4's rear glass panel, the revenue cost to Apple will depend on whether people start calling for free fixes. But even then, I'm guessing that only a small fraction of iPhone 4 owners use cases with back covers. Pulling these cases from the Apple Store will prevent future complaints. As with antennagate, most iPhone 4 owners won't have any problems.

Still, this is another ding to Apple's reputation. I appreciate that Apple took a risk with the iPhone 4's design, but it doesn't seem to be paying off.

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