This past week, an Arizona man claimed his leg was burned after his iPhone 6 bent and caught on fire in his front pocket.
According to his story, he was riding to a tailgate party before a University of Arizona football game on a bicycle-drawn rickshaw. The bicycle’s wheel caught on a tram track on the road and momentarily lost balance, causing the rickshaw to tip over to the left, although not entirely.
Moments later, the man says he felt his iPhone 6 burning through his jeans and boxer shorts, causing a 11.5 cm x 10.5 cm second degree burn on his leg, while a bystander who tried to pick up the phone immediately after the incident burnt his fingers.
Now, at this stage, there is no official confirmation of the story. What is now in little doubt is that it is the latest (and most extreme) of a string of complaints about the smartphone that have come to light over the past month.
Almost universally, users claim their new smartphone – usually an iPhone 6 Plus – has bent or warped at a point near the volume buttons, across a weak spot near where the Apple logo has been cut out from the device’s unibody aluminium frame.
After reports first surfaced on social media and online message boards about iPhone 6 Plus phones warping in users’ pockets, YouTube user Lewis Hilsenteger posted a series of videos demonstrating how easily the device can be bent with human hands. They received 10s of millions of views within days.
Soon after, Consumer Reports in the US conducted test showing the iPhone 6 bends when 70 pounds of pressure is applied in the middle, just over half the 130 pounds required to bend the iPhone 5 or 150 pounds for Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3. The test did not examine whether less pressure needed to be applied near the volume buttons.
A good explanation of why the device is prone to bending is explained here.
So far, Apple’s response has been as follows:
“With normal use a bend in [an] iPhone is extremely rare and through our first six days of sale, a total of nine customers have contacted Apple with a bent iPhone 6 Plus,” an Apple spokeswoman said in the company’s official statement.
In many articles, the statement has been taken misinterpreted as suggesting that there have been just nine such cases. But the operative phrase here is in “our first six days of sale” – and just deals with the iPhone 6 Plus.
Here’s why it matters. According to MixPanel figures, the smaller iPhone 6 accounted for 4.24% of the total iPhone user base, compared to 0.7% for the 6 Plus – 14.17% of the new phones. Assuming that by day six Apple had managed to get all 10 million units they sold on the iPhone 6’s opening weekend into users’ hands by day six, including pre-orders, that suggests around 1.4 million iPhone 6 Plus units were in the hands of consumers.
In other words, if Apple’s statement is to be believed, iPhone 6 Pluses are bending at a rate of 1.5 devices per day per 1.4 million units installed (or roughly one bend per million units per day). This is excluding the number of people just choosing to ‘put up with it’.
Sure enough, a website called One of the Nine has begun cataloguing complaints about bent iPhones from online message boards and social media sites. As of the time of writing, it documents around 155 cases and counting. It’s a number not inconsistent with a rate of one per million units per day.
Of course, the rate is still quite low. Based on these quite conservative assumptions, for an installed base of 10 million units, over 365 days, you could expect around 3650 bent phones. By comparison, there’s almost certainly been more people breaking their iPhone 6 Pluses by dropping them on a concrete floor and smashing the glass. If the figure turns out to be that low, it certainly won’t warrant a recall.
So unless you’re an Apple fanboy who believes the company can do no wrong, or accidentally set your leg on fire with one in an Arizona rickshaw, why do these bent iPhones matter?
It matters for a simple reason that SmartCompany’s resident brand expert Michel Hogan talks about in her blog every week: The importance to a brand of keeping its promise.
Consumers purchase Apple products expecting, in part, good build quality. Quality materials that are worth paying a premium for. Clearly, a phone that can be bent by human hands implies fragility rather than build quality.
Apple has attempted to play down the possibility of a long, thin aluminium object bending like a cola can. Its PR department even went so far as to allegedly blacklist a German publication that bent an iPhone 6Plus on camera.
Each time a user takes to Twitter to complain about a bent iPhone, or posts a photo of a bent iPhone to their friends on Instagram or Twitter, it reinforces the idea of the iPhone 6 being “prone to bending” in a small part of the public imagination.
Over time, seemingly everyone eventually has a friend of a friend of theirs who had a warped iPhone. And if your company’s core promise is around build quality, that’s a slow burning problem to contend with.