The iPhone 4 Dropped-Call Problem: Time for the End of Lean - and Mean

Quality problems remain way too common in high-tech products - and even the mighty Apple can't solve these in many cases. "Microsoft Disease" - putting profits over quality - is running rampant. Whatever happened to caring about the customer?

Apple's obvious problems with the iPhone 4 dropping calls, reported all over the place (even on the TV network-news shows), are indicative of a core issue with tech products - quality-control isn't what it needs to be, and products are being rushed to market to meet event schedules at the expense of providing a quality experience for the customer. This can't last, and it must not stand.

I've reamed Microsoft over the years for doing exactly this. I've wasted countless hours dealing with complex technical problems in Microsoft systems and applications software alike, all because Microsoft either (a) had/has a management team that is clueless as to how to deliver quality products, (b) can't find competent programmers and Q/A staff, or (c) both of the above. Regardless, the company's business practices led me to conclude that they could care less about their customers; the stock price is all that matters (and in Microsoft's case, that stock price hasn't changed over the past five years, and perhaps it might have if the company got its act together). The limits of such short-sightedness are thus now abundantly clear. My entire history with Microsoft products is reminiscent of the many problems with domestic (US) automobiles until really the last few years. In the late '70s/early '80s, US cars were a sick joke, and many blamed the workers on the production line for building crappy products. The real problem, as revealed to me by several automobile engineers over subsequent years, most certainly was not the production team doing a poor job; rather, it was the lack of simple detail engineering, manufacturing engineering, and quality control, all of these the result of senior management staff that put profits over customers. And guess what happened? Your tax dollars were ultimately required (or so the government tells us; I think this is additional nonsense) to save their sorry butts.

Apple was often viewed, and certainly positioned themselves, as a beacon of hope on the shores of stormy seas of Microsoft-driven despair. But even Apple is today succumbing to Microsoft Disease. The report I saw on TV mentioned that Steve Jobs advised customers not to hold their iPhone 4's "that way", and stated that any handset will drop calls under some circumstances. Fair enough, but I've had one (I think) dropped call on Verizon in the past three years. Dropped calls due to touching an antenna? Sure, it's possible - if you hire detail engineers from Detroit in the '70s to design your products.

Yes, touching an antenna really does change its electrical properties. I remember my first electronics project, at age 10, I think, building a crystal radio from a coil, a capacitor, an earpiece, and a germanium diode (real crystals are much too temperamental - I needed something reliable so I could listen to AM radio under the covers at night when I was supposed to be asleep). The antenna was just a piece of wire, and reception improved markedly if I touched the bare end of the wire with my hand. Of course, this was a receiver only. If you want to transmit, touching the antenna is a bad idea (as it is for receiving as well in many cases). To be fair, I've read reports that the iPhone 4's connection quality is a real improvement, at least in some situations - but perhaps only when one is wearing gloves.

The metal trim around the end of the iPhone 4 is, in fact, an antenna, so placed so as to improve performance. But where were the detail engineers? How about a plastic strip over the metal, or some other thin, transparent insulator? Where were the Q/A guys - in bars, perhaps? Where was Apple's management? Thinking up new ways to further close the iPhone, further squeeze dollars from consumers while subjecting them to unwanted advertising, and worrying more about announcement dates and demos than getting it right? I must say, I'm becoming disappointed in Apple. I'm a Mac user, but I've decided not to get an iPhone. It saddens me deeply to think that the only real alternative for me may be just as bad - Android, from advertising giant Google. Where's mobile Ubuntu when we need it? Perhaps WebOS is worth another look? When will we get MeeGo handsets? And will ecosystems develop to help these platforms compete and survive?

This is all very frustrating for those of us who largely ignore social networking and just want to get our jobs done via efficient, easy-to-use, low-cost products that just work, don't subject us to advertising, and overall put our needs first. I'm confident that all this capitalism-run-amuck will be addressed by a return to the real purpose of capitalism - to provide consumers with the highest quality products at the lowest possible price. Firms that get this right won't have to worry about squeezing their customers - those customers will instead come running. Serve a customer, really serve a customer, and get a prize.

I did an analyst briefing the other day with a firm I really like, but they surprised me by kicking off the call with a statement that they wanted to be, as a strategic priority, the world's second-best lean company. Despite the questionable strategy of seeking the number-two slot here (questionable to anyone except financial analysts, anyway), I just had to ask, who is number one? The answer - Toyota! Whoa, did the PR guys read this presentation before it went out? Toyota has recalled more than eight million cars recently, apparently suffering from Microsoft Disease as well (OK, we could call it Detroit Disease, too, but such is really no longer fair). I think, then, that we've had enough of lean. If such is going to compromise quality and give buyers remorse, what's the point? But while lean really should be on the way out, companies like Apple continue to push mean. Closed systems? Advertising? Non-removeable batteries? C'mon, Apple. You can do better. And if you want my business, you'll have to.

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