Dear Apple: My iPhone is a Lemon

In the early days of automobile manufacturing, some cars coming off the factory line just weren't up to snuff-but were sold to consumers anyway. They simply didn't perform as well as others or more easily broke down. Lights flickered and hinges squeaked. They were called lemons.

Such history of lemons led to consumer protection legislation, called lemon laws, forcing manufacturers to either buyback or replace defective cars. Manufacturers, apparently, weren't taking the initiative to address consumer complaints. They had turned a deaf ear.

All of which brings us to Apple. Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests there are more than a few iPhone 3GS lemons in the market. Apple's own user discussion boards have been filling up with consumer complaints over the iPhone 3GS battery life. Readers of stories about iPhone batteries continue to air their complaints in comment sections or e-mail them to editors.

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Yet these consumers are repeatedly and publicly shot down by Apple loyalists who insist in online comments that, among other things, battery drain is caused by users' technical ineptitude. Or they blame the media for making a mountain out of a molehill. As for Apple? There's nary a sound out of Apple headquarters in Cupertino, which hasn't responded to a request for an interview for this story. Advice from Apple gurus in Apple Stores also varies widely, iPhone owners told me.

Market researcher Gartner doesn't have access to data that could verify or debunk the iPhone lemon, but analyst Ken Dulaney, who covers the iPhone, says he is aware of the battery issue. "At this point, the only one who can bring clarity to this is Apple," which isn't talking, he says. "One complaint is all it takes to smoke out how Apple relates to its customers, how it tracks down problems and what it does to resolve them. This is just as important as to whether there is a problem or not."

While consumers look for ways to breathe life into iPhone batteries, says Dulaney, CIOs supporting iPhones in their enterprises better take notice. Other problems will surely crop up, and CIOs will need Apple to step up and respond to them quickly and methodically, he says. "If Apple won't handle these correctly, woe be the CIO who commits to build applications on the iPhone," Dulaney says.

Case of the Dead Batteries

Battery life is a major factor in the purchasing decision of any smartphone. That's why Apple touted improvements of the iPhone 3GS battery at its Worldwide Developers Conference last month: The iPhone 3GS would deliver 9 hours of use on Wi-Fi, 10 hours of video playback and 30 hours of music on a single charge-about a 30 percent upgrade to the iPhone 3G.

For the vast majority of iPhone 3GS owners, the battery works fine. As one PC World reader commented on an online story: "Let's say 1.2 million iPhone 3Gs [units] have been sold so far. And what, maybe 300 are defective? ... Isn't that within the ratio of pretty much everything we buy these days? Heck, 1 out of 5 cars is defective."

But other iPhone 3GS owners tell a different tale. Nearly 10,000 people have viewed the thread "3GS-incredibly poor battery life" on Apple's discussion board. It's impossible to say how many are running into iPhone battery problems, but the interest in the topic is real. A common complaint on the discussion board is that the iPhone 3GS battery life pales in comparison to the battery life of older iPhones, especially those not running iPhone OS 3.0 released last month.

Consider David Evaska who upgraded from an iPhone 2G to the iPhone 3GS and found the experience draining. He's not an avid game player nor intense app user, he told me, rather mainly surfs the Web and talks on the phone. This means his iPhone habits haven't changed all that much between the 2G and 3GS. "I never had to charge [the iPhone 2G] after only a day's use," he says. "In the two weeks I've had the new 3GS, it does not make it through half a day without needing a charge, and it never makes it through a whole day without being completely drained."

Other iPhone 3GS owners point to recharging inefficiencies. Like most cell phone users, Ray Soto recharges his iPhone 3GS every night, but lately it wasn't showing that it was fully recharged in the morning. Sometimes the iPhone battery indicated a 99 percent or 98 percent charge. So he took it to an Apple Store and spoke to a Genius.

"He told me that it's not really recommended to leave it plugged in overnight to charge due to potential overcharging, and explained that it's best to let it go to 100 percent and then take it off the charger," Soto told me. "I asked him if he really thought I should wake up at 1 a.m. to unplug my phone because it reached 100 percent and then wake up again in a few more hours to plug it back in because it is no longer 100 percent charged."

What's Killing the iPhone? And How Do You Save Battery Life?

There might not be any problem with an iPhone that's unable to show a 100 percent charge, says Aaron Vronko, CEO of Rapid Repair, an iPod repair shop, and one of the first technicians to take apart the iPhone 3GS and write a repair guide. "The chip on the battery and the chip on the device measure the juice flowing back and forth, and they might be out of sync," he told to me. "Run the iPhone completely dead, charge it until it can't take anymore charge, run it down fully again, and this should sync up the chips. Do this every month or two."

Vronko says the battery life issue, on the other hand, is a pretty common complaint and a real problem for some people. He also believes it's a fixable software problem, not a hardware one. If a core component of the operating system is malfunctioning, he says, then everyone would be experiencing dismal battery life.

"The software issue is more likely to be related to inter-functionality between a couple of different pieces of software, such as how push notifications interact with Safari or a specific application set is overworking the hardware," Vronko says. "It may be the way a certain API or subset of code interacts with the OS or push notification causing it to over-consume resources."

Until Apple fixes the problem with a software update, Vronko suggests turning off push notification. Or make sure apps such as AIM and Skype aren't left open because they could be accessing the 3G radio and consuming a ton of power-that is, put them on standby. Same goes for apps that tap location-based services. "They will definitely burn battery," Gartner's Dulaney says, "you can watch the battery drain almost real time."

Another option: Purchase Mophie Juice Pack Air for $80. It's an add-on battery pack in the form of a case for the iPhone that claims to double the battery life.

An Unfortunate iPhone Owner Picks a Lemon

Vronko thinks the iPhone battery issue isn't really a manufacturing defect-at least, not in the traditional sense of the "lemon." There simply aren't as many manufacturing variables with the iPhone as there are with a car. Instead, he figures it's a two-fold problem: faulty software interaction, and the fact that the iPhone 3GS and iPhone OS 3.0 have powerful functionality that let consumers drain the battery faster.

But don't tell that to Monica Rauscher, who believes she really did get an iPhone 3GS lemon. Among other problems, her iPhone 3GS battery life was horrible, she told me. "I send a text at 100 percent battery life and it drops to 97 percent," she says, "then there's just a continual decline from there. By the time my phone gets to 70 percent, I'm not able to look up anything on Safari without constant errors in retrieving data or able access emails."

Rauscher took her iPhone to an Apple Store. She considered buying the battery pack but was put off by negative customer reviews. Then she asked a Genius about the iPhone's short battery life. "What I was told is that they are working on it and are hoping to have it resolved by the end of the summer," Rauscher says. Now Rauscher is waiting for a replacement iPhone since the store was out of stock.

Most iPhone owners suffering from dismal battery life are waiting for Apple to come out with a software update that they hope fixes the problem. Given the "echo of silence" from Cupertino, says Vronko, no one knows for sure. That might be a problem for iPhone 3GS owners who didn't purchase the iPhone 3GS extended warranty-Apple's refund policy is only good for 30 days from the date of purchase.

"But I definitely anticipate Apple will come out with a software update soon, maybe in a couple of weeks, with some optimization for battery life," Vronko says. "They'll do something because this battery life issue is not just going to go away."

How serious is the iPhone battery performance? Send me an email at tkaneshige@cio.com. Or follow me on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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