Article: Is Apple the New Toyota?

by on July 6, 2010

After all of the news over the past couple of weeks regarding the iPhone 4, it seems that besides it being a slow time for news, the iPhone 4 has gotten more than its share of bad press. I was actually on the phone with my dad today and he compared this (in some ways) to the recent difficulties Toyota has faced.

It’s easy to draw some comparisons about how both companies are similar—reliable products and often going for the more understated and stylish, rather than gaudy or gimmicky. A few changes that look good on paper can cause major issues down the road. In Toyota’s case, it was the a change to accelerator in a number of models, most notably the extremely popular Camry. After that, the company was under fire again with brake issues on the already accelerator-affected Prius. Despite most of that being resolved, the company took a beating in the press and the public started to question the bulletproof reliability that has become synonymous with Toyota. Companies like Hyundai, Honda, and even Ford have had a field day by getting potential Toyota customers to think twice.

What does this mean for Apple? In some ways, the iPhone is quite a bit like the Toyota (pick a specific model if you want) of phones. It has always worked well, hasn’t been the cheapest, but many people have replaced their iPhones due to wanting new features as opposed to wear, tear, or even obsolescence. You could get a cheaper flip phone or even a cheaper smartphone, but most people know what they’re getting into with an iPhone.

Previously, the biggest problem with the iPhone was AT&T. Although I have had excellent service in my area with AT&T for the past two years (without an iPhone, no less), I know of many people who have stood by other carriers (mostly Verizon) and won’t switch, but would get an iPhone if they did not have to sign a contract with AT&T. Often the tech press would state that the iPhone was a fantastic device, but that you were stuck with AT&T.

Despite that shortcoming, it seems like the biggest problem with the iPhone 4 (according to the press) is the antenna. This has become something that has gained national attention, so the people who don’t read sites like this regularly are simply hearing that it is a dud. I’m sure this will pass in a few weeks or months, but the damage is done partially because Apple did not react fast enough.

Just like Toyota, Apple took its time to issue a statement and simply assured the public that a fix is underway. I’ve had my iPhone 4 for about a week and have not experienced any antenna issues and neither has one of our other writers. That being said, those who are affected are wondering what’s going to be done and if it’s an actual design flaw or simply (as Apple said) a bug.

My personal opinion is that it’s probably a bug mixed with antenna attenuation when you hold the phone a certain way. Since it seems that some previous iPhones with iOS 4 have the same problem, that would suggest a software problem. Apple could’ve designed the antenna differently, maybe going with a less-risky design, but phones have had external antennas for awhile—except most people don’t hold them by them. In my very unscientific testing, I was able to cause some attenuation with my old Motorola RAZR V3 and my Sony Ericsson z750a when held by the antenna area, but could not get the iPhone 4 to do it.

With all of that being said, I think people should just wait and see if the software fixes do the trick. With any new product, there’s bound to be bugs that need to be worked out and, unfortunately, the iPhone 4 is two new products in one: the actual hardware and the software. Since the software also runs on prior models, that could help isolate the problems.

Clearly people still want iPhones and Apple should be happy that things in Androidland are very fragmented and not quite on par for the average user. The power users who want everything and anything are probably already looking at Android devices, but those who just want a smartphone that works well may be scared away from the reports in the media if Apple is not careful.

What’s going to happen next? I’m not positively sure, but if there is a hardware flaw, this could get really nasty. If it is a software fix, it’s taken care of, we move on, and that’s that. One thing to keep in mind is that a couple-hundred-dollar gadget is not a car, and reception issues are probably not life-threatening like a faulty accelerator could be. Furthermore, Apple usually has the policy of replacing devices outright under warranty instead of trying to fix them, so most users who are affected could get a new iPhone if they make enough noise.

This post has been filed in Articles