Opinion: Flexibility Under Stress

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Date: Monday, September 29th, 2014, 18:37
Category: iPhone, Opinion

By Bob Snow

The new iPhone 6 Plus appears to have a problem. There have been a number of reports of the Plus deforming under a relatively normal mode of use. The phone, when placed in a front pocket for a length of time and stressed, can bend and not return to its original flat form. This is not a problem that can be simply dismissed, nor is it the end of the world. Apple knows how to benefit from the emotion and hype in the lead up to such an important introduction. The downside is that any negative publicity about the product gets similarly amplified. Take a deep breath and let’s look at the ramifications.


Apple relies on profits from phone sales more than any other product line, and the Plus is a costly and very personal product from the perspective of the consumer. There is a lot riding on this, but it could be much worse. I don’t think the problem will effect the 4.7-inch phone, which should represent the bulk of iPhone 6 sales. Keep in mind that the iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c are still available. What remains to be seen is how many of the iPhone 6 Plus phones get bent and how Apple addresses the problem with customers. Phones with glass screens break all the time. I suspect many, many more of the Plus screens will break in the course of use than phones bending. Apple needs to treat customers with bent phones well. Give them a replacement phone, even credit towards a rival phone through their carrier, if the customer wants to keep a large screened phone in their pocket. For obvious reasons, this is going to be an almost exclusively male problem.

Why is this happening? The phone is made of aluminum. Aluminum, at least initially, bends elastically and springs back. Beyond that, it will deform plastically and not return to its original shape. The sides are critical to the strength of the phone in bending and they may not be strong enough, especially around the button holes. A plastic phone like the 5c remains elastic in bending to a far greater degree. It is more likely to crack or bend far enough to break the screen, before becoming permanently deformed. Plastic has a lot going for it and nothing to apologize for, but the aluminum phones feel great in your hand and there is an aesthetic to them that is very elegant.

Apple has reported a very low number of initial complaints, but it is early in the game. Consumer Reports has tested the phone in bending, but in a limited way. Temperature, time and the distribution of forces may be critical to the mode of failure. Fixing the problem is going to be almost impossible until the introduction of the next model. It is just too late to make the phone any thicker. Apple has indicated that there is already stainless steel and titanium employed in the shell for stiffening. The way these products are engineered and sourced does not allow for much flexibility in production. It is conceivable that a stiffer alloy could be used but it might wreak havoc with the tools that machine the shell. Even such a minor changes might not make a statistically significant difference in outcome and could take months to implement. Haters just want this to damage the brand and teach Apple and its customers some kind of lesson. This will all come down to the number of phones affected and the quality of customer service. Apple needs to remain flexible, even as their phones get bent out of shape

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