All posts filed under “Mobile phones

Biting Apple

BBC News headline, 28 September 2007

Interesting to see the BBC’s summary of the current iPhone update story: “Apple issues an update which damages iPhones that have been hacked by users”. I’m not sure that’s quite how Apple’s PR people would have put it, but it’s interesting to see that whoever writes those little summaries for the BBC website found it easiest to sum up the story in this way. This is being portrayed as Apple deliberately, strategically damaging the phones, rather than an update unintentionally causing problems with unlocked or modified phones.

Regardless of what the specific issue is here, and whether unmodified iPhones have also lost functionality because of some problem with the update, can’t we just strip out all this nonsense? How many people who wanted an iPhone also wanted to be locked in to AT&T or whatever the local carrier will be in each market? Anyone? Who wants to be locked in to anything? What a waste of technical effort, sweat and customer goodwill: it’s utterly pathetic.

This is exactly what Fred Reichheld‘s ‘Bad profits’ idea calls out so neatly:

Whenever a customer feels misled, mistreated, ignored, or coerced, then profits from that customer are bad. Bad profits come from unfair or misleading pricing. Bad profits arise when companies save money by delivering a lousy customer experience. Bad profits are about extracting value from customers, not creating value.

If bad profits are earned at the expense of customers, good profits are earned with customers’ enthusiastic cooperation. A company earns good profits when it so delights its customers that they willingly come back for more—and not only that, they tell their friends and colleagues to do business with the company.

What is the question that can tell good profits from bad? Simplicity itself: How likely is it that you would recommend this company to a friend or colleague?

If your iPhone’s just turned into the most stylish paperweight in the office, are you likely to recommend it to a colleague?

More to the point, if Apple had moved – in the first place – into offering telecom services to go with the hardware, with high levels of user experience and a transparent pricing system, how many iPhone users and Mac evangelists wouldn’t have at least considered changing?

On the level

Patent image of Tilt sensor
A tilt-detector from this 1984 US patent, with intended application on a packing box.

The liquid detection stickers in mobile phones, which allow manufacturers and retailers to ascertain if a phone has got wet, and thus reject warranty claims (whether judiciously/appropriately or not), seem to be concerning a lot of people worldwide. Around a quarter of this site’s visitors are searching for information on this subject, and the comments on last October’s post on the subject contain a wealth of useful experience and advice.

This current thread on uk.legal.moderated goes into more depth on the issue, and how the burden of proof works in this case (at least in the UK). While informed opinion seems to be that the stickers will only change colour when actual liquid is present within the phone, rather than mere moisture or damp, this may well include condensation forming within the casing, as well as the more obvious dropping-of-phone-into-puddle and so on. The main point of contention seems to be that the sticker may change colour (perhaps gradually) and the phone continue working perfectly, but when an unrelated problem occurs and the phone is taken in for repairs under warranty, the presence of the ‘voided’ sticker may be used as a universal warranty get-out even if the actual problem is something different.

Tilt detection
Along these lines, one of the posts tells of a similarly interesting design tactic – tilt-detectors on larger hardware:

30 years in the IT industry and associated customer service tells me they are trying it on and most people buy it. In the olden days, hardware used to come with a similar red dot system indicating the kit had been tilted more than 45 degrees and the manufacturers claimed the kit could not be installed and had to be written off.

Of course, 99.9% of the time the kit was fine, but they had a get-out from a warranty claim or so they thought. When the buyers tried to claim on their insurance or against the transport companies insurers the loss adjusters got involved and invariably the kit was installed and worked fine for years rather than the insurers paying out.

In some cases, of course, tilt-detectors were (are still?) necessary in this role. A piece of equipment with multiple vertically cantilevered PCBs laden with heavy components – relays, for example – might well be damaged if the PCBs were tilted away from the vertical. Certainly some devices with small moving coil components would seem as though they may be damaged by being turned upside down, for example. (Do the ultra-fine damper wires on an aperture-grille CRT monitor such as a Trinitron need to be kept in a particular orientation when handling the monitor?)

This patent, published in 1984, from which the above images were extracted, describes an especially clever ‘interlock’ system using two liquid-based detectors arranged so that if the device/package is tilted and then tilted back again, the second detector will then be triggered:

…it is desirable that the tilt detectors not be resettable. In particular, it must be possible to combine a package with at least a pair of the tilt detectors such that attempting to reset one would cause the other to be tilted beyond its pre-determined maximum angle so that the total combination would always afford an indication that the tilt beyond that allowed had been effected.

This is something of a poka-yoke – but as with the phone liquid-detection stickers, it’s being used to detect undesirable customer/handler behaviour rather than actually to prevent it happening. Other than making a package too heavy to tilt, I am not sure exactly how we might design something which actually prevents the tilting problem, aside from rectifying the design problem which makes tilting a problem in the first place (even filling the airspace in the case with non-conductive, low-density foam might help here).

But there’s certainly a way the tilt-detector could be improved to help and inform the handler rather than simply ‘condemn’ the device. For example, it could let out an audible alarm if the package or device is tilted, say, 20 degrees, to allow the handler to rectify his or her mistake before reaching the damaging 45 degrees, whilst still permanently changing colour if 45 degrees is reached. In the long run, it would probably help educated users about how to handle the device rather than just ‘punishing’ them for an infraction. I’m sure that mercury-switch (or whatever the current non-toxic equivalent is) alarms have been used in this way (e.g. on a vending machine), but how often are they used to help the user rather than alert security?

The patent description goes on to mention using tamper-evident methods of attaching the detectors to the device or packaging – this is another interesting area, which I am sure we will cover at some point on the blog.

Dishonourable discharge?

Nokia phone with battery visible

Long overdue, I’m currently reading Bruce Schneier‘s excellent Beyond Fear, and realising that in many ways, security thinking overlaps with architectures of control: the goal of so many systems is to control users’ behaviour or to deny the user the ability to perform certain actions. I’ll post a fuller comparison and analysis in due course, but one example Bruce mentions in passing seemed worth blogging separately:

Nokia spends about a hundred times more money per phone on battery security than on communications security. The security system senses when a consumer uses a third-party battery and switches the phone into maximum power-consumption mode; the point is to ensure that consumers buy only Nokia batteries.

Nokia is prepared to spend a considerable amount of money solving a security problem that it perceives – it loses revenue if customers buy batteries from someone else – even though that solution is detrimental to consumers.

As a battery authentication method, this is more subtle than the systems we’ve looked at before, which actually refuse to allow the device to operate if a non-original-manufacturer battery (or perhaps charger) is used.

Nokia’s system attempts to persuade the customer that the new (cheaper) battery he or she has bought is “no good” by making the phone discharge the battery more quickly – in an extremely underhanded way. From the point of view of the (uninformed) consumer, though, it makes Nokia look good. “Oh, that cheap battery I bought is rubbish, it doesn’t seem to hold its charge. Nokia make them so much better, guess I should stick to them in future.”

But if the Nokia batteries were genuinely ‘better’ than the cheap replacement ones, surely this kind of underhanded tactic wouldn’t be necessary?

P.S. I have no idea whether this Nokia ‘trick’ is real/common/still used, as Beyond Fear has no references, or whether other manufacturers do something similar (as opposed to outright battery authentication-and-denial). I’ll ask a friend at Nokia.

P.P.S. Jason Kottke also noted this tactic back in 2003.

Key issue

SonyEricsson W880i

Is this simply poor design or a deliberate feature? A friend tells me of his irritation with his Sony Ericsson W880i’s ‘internet’ key, which is positioned such that it frequently gets pressed accidentally when pressing the buttons above and below it – “three or four times a day”, he says – and, to avoid incurring internet charges, needs to be immediately cancelled.

Clearly any device with many functions and small keys is always going to have some issues with accidental key-presses, but when a single accidental key-press can actually cost the user money and the user not necessarily notice it straight away, this would seem to be a bad choice of layout. Is the ‘internet-via-a-single-key-press’ such a valuable feature that replacing it with, say, a process involving two presses (e.g. a confirmation in addition to the original press) would inconvenience users more?

It seems perhaps unlikely that this is an intentional architecture of control to increase revenue for the network operators by causing accidental connections, but the fact that my friend suggested this – straight off – as the reason for the design, demonstrates how, as users of technology, we’re increasingly aware and suspicious of architectures of control in the products and systems around us, even if we don’t have a full grasp of the concept in a wider context.

Some links

Some links. Guess what vehicle this is.

First, an apology for anyone who’s had problems with the RSS/Atom feeds over the last month or so. I think they’re fixed now (certainly Bloglines has started picking them up again) but please let me know if you don’t read this. Oops, that won’t work… anyway:

  • ‘Gadgets as Tyrants’ by Xeni Jardin, looks at digital architectures of control in the context of the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas :

    Many of the tens of thousands of products displayed last week on the Vegas expo floor, as attractive and innovative as they are, are designed to restrict our use… Even children are bothered by the increasing restrictions. One electronics show attendee told me his 12-year-old recently asked him, “Why do I have to buy my favorite game five times?” Because the company that made the game wants to profit from each device the user plays it on: Wii, Xbox, PlayStation, Game Boy or phone.

    At this year’s show, the president of the Consumer Electronics Association, Gary Shapiro, spoke up for “digital freedom,” arguing that tech companies shouldn’t need Hollywood’s permission when they design a new product.

  • The Consumerist – showing a 1981 Walmart advert for a twin cassette deck – comments that “Copying music wasn’t always so taboo”.

    I’m not sure it is now, either.

  • George Preston very kindly reminds me of the excellent Trusted Computing FAQ by Ross Anderson, a fantastic exposition of the arguments. For more on Vista’s ‘trusted’ computing issues, Peter Guttmann has some very clear explanations of how shocking far we are from anything sensible. See also Richard Stallman’s ‘Right to Read’.
  • David Rickerson equally kindly sends me details of a modern Panopticon prison recently built in Colorado – quite impressive in a way:

    Image from Correctional News

    …Architects hit a snag when they realized too much visibility could create problems.

    “We’ve got lots of windows looking in, but the drawback is that inmates can look from one unit to another through the windows at the central core area of the ward,” Gulliksen says. “That’s a big deal. You don’t want inmates to see other inmates across the hall with gang affiliations and things like that.”

    To minimize unwanted visibility, the design team applied a reflective film to all the windows facing the wards. Deputies can see out, but inmates cannot see in. Much like the 18th-century Panopticon, the El Paso County jail design keeps inmates from seeing who is watching them.

    Image from Correctional News website

  • Should the iPhone be more open?

    As Jason Devitt says, stopping users installing non-Apple (or Apple-approved) software means that the cost of sending messages goes from (potentially) zero, to $5,000 per megabyte:

    Steve typed “Sounds great. See you there.” 28 characters, 28 bytes. Call it 30. What does it cost to transmit 30 bytes?

    * iChat on my Macbook: zero.
    * iChat running on an iPhone using WiFi: zero.
    * iChat running on an iPhone using Cingular’s GPRS/EDGE data network: 6 hundredths of a penny.
    * Steve’s ‘cool new text messaging app’ on an iPhone: 15c.

    A nickel and a dime.

    15c for 30 bytes = $0.15 X 1,000,000 / 30 = $5,000 per megabyte.

    “Yes, but it isn’t really $5,000,” you say. It is if you are Cingular, and you handle a few billion messages like this each quarter.

    … [I] assumed that I would be able to install iChat myself. Or better still Adium, which supports AIM, MSN, ICQ, and Jabber. But I will not be able to do that because … it will not be possible to install applications on the iPhone without the approval of Cingular and Apple… But as a consumer, I have a choice. And for now the ability to install any application that I want leaves phones powered by Windows Mobile, Symbian, Linux, RIM, and Palm OS with some major advantages over the iPhone.

    Aside from the price discrimination (and business model) issue (see also Control & Networks), one thing that strikes me about a phone with a flat touch screen is simply how much less haptic feedback the user gets.

    I know people who can text competently without looking at the screen, or indeed the phone at all. They rely on the feel of the buttons, the pattern of raised and lowered areas and the sensation as the button is pressed, to know whether or not the character has actually been entered, and which character it was (based on how many times the button is pressed). I would imagine they would be rather slow with the iPhone.

  • The Tell-Tale Part

    Open the case of your mobile (cell) phone. Do you see a round white sticker, similar to that in the first photo below?

    Water damage sticker

    This is a water damage sticker, which changes colour if moisture gets into this bit of the phone, and will be used to void your warranty if your phone stops working for any reason.

    A single droplet of water placed on the sticker turns it bright red (in the case of my phone, anyway):

    Water damage sticker

    WikiHow’s ‘How to save a wet cell phone’ (found via Consumerist) recommends that you:

    “Place a piece of satin finish scotch tape over your water damage sticker before you drop your cell phone in the water to prevent the water damage sticker from voiding your warranty… Remove the tape if you ever have to return your phone for repairs or warranty.”

    Now, it’s a clever idea on the part of the phone companies, and presumably water-damaged phones being returned under warranty were enough of a problem to make such stickers ‘necessary’.

    However, we all know that in practice, any non-working phone where the sticker has changed colour will be immediately classified as ‘water-damaged’ and the customer’s rights voided, even if the actual phone was independently defective.

    As a designer, I would much prefer to look at the problem as “How can we improve the sealing of phones so that water ingress is no longer a major problem?” than “How can we design something to cover our backs and shift all the blame onto the user for our design fault?”

    But maybe I’m naïve.

    P.S. My Motorola, shown above, began to work intermittently just a month after the warranty expired, completely unrelated to any water issues, hence I don’t mind getting the sticker wet.

    P.S. Hi, visitors from Nokia. Please note, my intention wasn’t to have a go at phone designers (or the engineering teams); and your phones seem superior on the water-protection front anyway. It’s just a commentary on the mindset which says “it’s easier/cheaper to catch users out than it is to solve the problem.”