Expecting perfect electronic devices? Don’t hold your breath

There seems to be increasing numbers of complaints in the media about popular name-brand consumer electronics products with serious operational flaws, especially notebook computers and smartphones. What’s going on here?

Expecting perfect electronic devices? Don't hold your breath

Apple, in particular, has been plagued with a number of recent high profile technical issues. Shortly after the iPhone 4 was released in June, customers began complaining about call quality related to the case-integrated antenna design on the new handsets. Just last week, a California woman sued the company claiming that they engaged in deceptive practices by offering the iOS 4 update to iPhone 3G users knowing that it would turn phones into a, “virtually useless ‘iBrick.’” And just last week, reports began to surface about widespread display issues with the new MacBook Air ultrathin notebooks.

Of course it’s not just Apple facing these sorts of problems. Dell just settled a major class-action lawsuit a month ago, acknowledging that the company knowingly shipped to customers 11.8 million computers with faulty capacitors. Most software, no matter what the platform or design house, is plagued with serious flaws that are subject to exploit by hackers and malware, requiring frequent patches to fix.

Why does it seem to be so difficult for consumer electronics companies to release a decent product nowadays?

After working in the industry for a laptop manufacturer for a number of years, I have some inside knowledge as to what it takes to get a computer from the planning stages, to manufacturing, and into customer’s hands. This also brings some insight as to why there is no such thing as the perfect computer.

I don’t believe that any of these companies are trying to intentionally sell faulty products to consumers. The fact is that if Apple and Dell were to strive to achieve perfection, they would never have a product fit to release – at least not in time to keep that product technologically relevant.

The pace of technological innovation was not always as rapid as it is now. When I first began working in the industry ten years ago, a model roll per year is all it took to offer customers a product that was cutting-edge, and those who bought last year’s models weren’t that far behind. Now, many of the major manufacturers are in a race to bring out the latest and greatest with new models coming twice per year, and sometimes even quarterly.

The more quickly companies are churning out new products, the more quickly consumers are demanding them. Apple has a remarkably rabid fan base that almost seems to hunger for the next generation of a product immediately after one has just been released.

You would think that a few months might be adequate time to test a new phone or laptop and iron out all of the bugs, but these are extremely complex pieces of machinery that they are working with and it’s not realistic to expect that a small test group can identify and resolve all of the issues customers will face out in the field. Not only that, but it’s difficult to test the more “exclusive” products like the new iPhones in a realistic manner when you’re trying to hide it from the world until a big launch event.

Sure, there are some cases of shoddy workmanship, but that is not all the fault of Apple or Dell either. These companies work with a number of factories around the world and often make a decision to mass manufacture an item after testing all of the components in a prototype machine that was hand-assembled. Once the product is mass-produced there can be a shortage of originally tested and approved components that must be substituted in a rushed manner as not to bring the production schedule too far behind. This happens more often than you might think, and is at the root of a lot of the hardware issues that these companies face. And the quality control departments are under intense scrutiny by corporate executives who don’t want to miss committed launch dates because the company will lose money to the competitor who is still able to meet theirs.

Is this a good excuse for all of the issues? Maybe not, but if consumers want these new products so quickly, there is a price to pay.

Can we have both fast innovation AND good quality tech products? Unless something changes, probably not.