If buggy smartphones are the "new reality", here's some free advice for handset makers

It’s an honest yet unwelcome admission: rushing devices to market with buggy and unfinished software is the “new reality” in the smartphone space, RIM’s co-Chief Executive Jim Balsillie tells the Wall Street Journal. When the company released its iPhone competitor, the Blackberry Storm, it met its Black Friday deadline by “the skin of their teeth”, only for the device to be widely slammed by critics for its many software glitches, most of which, RIM claims, have now been addressed by a firmware update.

RIM’s story isn’t an isolated one. The majority of smartphones that I’ve tested over the last year, admittedly some were “pre-production” models, had issues with the software on which they run on. The problem should be addressed in a forthcoming software update, I’m almost always told, and more often than not it is.


And there lies the biggest problem.

While “release early and release often” might be the new smartphone reality, timing is everything. Here’s some free advice for smartphone makers…

By all means send clearly marked “pre-production” review units to the press (this blogger included) but do follow up with the finished device. That way you (and us) can remain credible e.g. bug number one has, as promised, been addressed in time for public release.

Make sure that all features “just work” – even if that means cutting features from the 1.0 release. The first iPhone lacked a number of software features – it still does – many of which, although not all, were added through subsequent and free software updates. It’s no good throwing in everything including the kitchen sink if the experience is miserable due to buggy or incomplete software.

Address critical bugs ASAP. If for whatever reason you haven’t met rule number two, get that software update out as soon as possible. The last thing you want to do is saddle an early adopter with a crippled device for any longer than is absolutely neccessry (which is no time at all).

Communicate. Acknowledge bugs and publish a timeline of when they will be addressed. This is best done through social media such as the company blog. It’s best to be open but make sure you stick to what you say (see number 3).

Over-the-air updates. This one is so crucial. I cringe every time I have to plug my phone into my PC to check for a software update, and it’s my job to do so. This is something that shouldn’t be asked of mainstream users. It’s 2009 not 1999. And this should also happen automatically: my phone goes out and checks for updates on a scheduled basis and just does it. Otherwise, many, many users will never upgrade their phone’s system software and instead will be saddled with whatever buggy version shipped with the device, which may have sat in an operator’s warehouse for a number of weeks.

Keep the operators out of the way and think global. This is where the iPhone has led the way. Software updates come straight from Apple and are the same no matter what network you use or which part of the world you reside in.


last100 is edited by Steve O'Hear. Aside from founding last100, Steve is co-founder and CEO of Beepl and a freelance journalist who has written for numerous publications, including TechCrunch, The Guardian, ZDNet, ReadWriteWeb and Macworld, and also wrote and directed the Silicon Valley documentary, In Search of the Valley. See his full profile and disclosure of his industry affiliations.

One Response to “If buggy smartphones are the "new reality", here's some free advice for handset makers”

  1. Brian Liu says:

    Mobile phones used to have 4-year development cycles, but due to consumer pressure and CEOs making ridiculous promises, the development cycle has been compacted into as little as 6 months. This is not enough time for accurate testing on all fronts (variables double out in the field).

    Furthermore, over-the-air updates are not used due to hacking. Though there could be copious amounts of security, one fail would mean complete loss of mobile communication in large areas, if not nationwide.

    Features cannot be cut since the products will not sell. Apple could afford it only because it was riding the success of the iPod – other, unpopular companies cannot do the same. While I agree that there needs to be a better balance of features and quality, there isn’t too much leeway especially because handset manufacturers are doing especially bad in this economic downturn.

    I agree transparency is a great thing – but it may also cause a PR nightmare. There needs to be great discretion in revealing problems especially in a field where consumers understand little. Discussing problems may only make consumers more disgruntle or panicked.

    Operators (Networks) control everything. EVERYTHING. They choose which phones are allowed and which ones are not. Again, Apple had a lot of leverage due to their popularity, but ultimately lost out to AT&T control. It isn’t as simple as “keeping operators out” – laws would need to be instated and Networks would have to yield control (they definitely won’t go easily).

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