When Apple iPhone 6 Plus devices started showing up with a strange failure mode earlier this year, users were mystified at first.
The problem, which soon became known as “touch disease,” emerged when handsets stopped responding to touch commands and a flickering gray bar appeared at the top of the screen. The details of smartphone failures were first described in detail by iFixit, an electronics repair website.
Initially, Apple’s response to iPhone owners who experienced the problem when their phones were out of warranty was an offer to sell them a replacement phone at an out-of-warranty price, usually around $349. Now, Apple has introduced a program to fix phones for a lower price, $149.
The Touch Disease issue with the iPhone 6 Plus and 6s Plus is a direct result of the light, flexible construction of the handset's case which allowed the phone to bend in normal use, such as when stowing in phone in trouser pockets or handbags. The case's lack of strength and resulting flexibility is the apparent cause of Touch Disease.
The flexing apparently causes two “Touch IC” chips inside the phone to break free from the phone’s system board. Once the connections break, the phone can no longer sense pressure on the screen and it stops responding.
“For quite a long time Apple wasn’t able to repair those phones,” said Julia Bluff, director of advocacy for iFixit. “It requires a board level repair specialist,” Bluff explained. “You had to replace those Touch IC chips. Apple can’t do that. Apple wasn’t giving consumers any options other than buying an out of warranty replacement unit,” something that didn't sit well with many users.
Bluff said that at this point, it’s not clear whether Apple has begun repairing those iPhones, or simply replacing them with other units with the same design weakness. But she noted that independent repair shops have developed methods of repairing the dead iPhones so they won’t fail again by adding some shielding that also protects the Touch IC chips. “There used to be a shield to provide protection,” Bluff noted, “but they don’t have that in the 6 or 6 Plus.”
The obvious question for folks with an iPhone 6 Plus or 6s Plus is what to do if your phone hasn’t started giving any trouble. Basically there are three options. One is to sell or trade in your phone now while you still can and buy something else, perhaps an iPhone 7 Plus.
Another option is to wait for the failure to happens, which then gives the owner the choice of going to Apple to fix or exchange your phone or having a repair shop fix it.
Taking it to an independent repair shop likely means that your phone will actually be repaired and made stronger so it won’t break again. But that means paying to fix a phone that you bought only recently. How did Apple let this happen?
“I think Apple dropped the ball. It’s a design flaw,” said Alan Zeichick, principal analyst for Camden Associates. “There’s no reason if the phone was properly designed that this would happen.”
Zeichick said that because it was Apple’s poor design, that the company should replace the phones with units that don’t have the flaw. “This should be an out of warranty replacement,” Zeichick said.
Zeichick noted that other iPhones have had similar problems and that in those cases the devices were simply replaced. The original iPhone 5 had a problem where in some cases the batteries would start to swell and lift the screen away from the smartphone's face, he explained, adding that his phone at the time was replaced.
“This should not be at any cost to the customer. It’s a design flaw or a faulty component,” he said.
What concerns several observers is that similar problems keep happening. When the iPhone 6 Plus bending problem appeared, for example, perhaps Apple should have beefed up the design of the case. But there have been a series of such problems.
“As Apple steps up its battles with Samsung, it needs to step up its game in terms of quality,” Zeichick said. He pointed to “bendgate”, touch disease, the iPhone 4 antennas. ;“They need to get their designs better. Samsung is going to figure this out. They’re not going to make a rookie mistake like the Note 7 again,” Zeichick sand. “Apple has to get this right.”
At this point, it’s not clear why it took Apple so long to recognize that Touch Disease is a real problem. Perhaps it’s because the company didn’t have a good way to fix the failing phones and saw selling replacements as the only options.
It may also be that Apple’s executives really believe that the company has the best products available and didn’t foresee the need for a fix to products that had been bending since day one.
It appears that Apple is accumulating a long list of problems that it needs to design out of existence. And it needs to use that improved design to rebuild confidence in its smartphones. As Peachick puts it, “Apple is running out of chances.”