Fancier Gadgets Mean More Acute Problems
By Yuki Noguchi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Robert Burger recently paid $460 for a new Motorola cell phone with
a wireless earpiece.
It didn't work. "I can't get it to recognize the earpiece," said Burger, an
administrator in a Washington law firm who says he spends thousands of
minutes on his cell phone every month. "And the battery isn't holding a
This year, 98.9 million cell phones will be distributed to customers in
North America, according to research firm Instat/MDR. About 20 to 25
percent of them will run into problems within the first year, costing money
and time for consumers like Burger, estimates Neil Strother, an Instat
In a world of balky gadgets, cell phones occupy an uncertain middle ground
between the costly, indispensable items we fix when they break (computers
if they're recent models) and those we throw away to buy replacements (VHS
players, answering machines).
Many of today's cell phones come loaded with cameras, e-mail, schedulers,
Web browsers, Bluetooth wireless capability, speakerphones, digital music
players and video players. And all of those features mean there's more to
The average life cycle of a phone is down, to 19.4 months this year
from 25 months three years ago, thanks not only to phones that fail
but also to customers who change providers or upgrade to the latest
models, according to the Yankee Group, a research firm in Boston.
This year, replacement-phone sales are expected to reach 103 million
-- costing consumers $4.8 billion -- or nearly double the 56.4 million
sold three years ago, according to the research firm.
Replacing a broken or lost cell phone can be a pricey proposition
because most carriers won't provide their advertised discount s of
$100 or more unless customers commit to extending their contracts for
a year or two. Customers who are early into a contract may not
qualify for a discount at all.
Dionne Hamilton, a legal secretary in Silver Spring, is fed up with
her LG 3100 phone, which she said is one of four in her family that
drops calls or loses service altogether.
She brought it in for a software upgrade three months ago, but it's
acting up again, she said. "It's not under warranty," which means she
would have to pay between $100 and $200 to replace it with a similar
new phone. "But I don't want to."
For most cell phone users, replacing a phone that's gone bad comes
with an added cost in time and aggravation: pecking away at the keys
of the new phone to reconstruct a mobile address book of often-used
names and numbers.
Verizon Wireless recently started offering a service to back up
cellular address books for just such an emergency -- at a cost of
$1.99 a month. Some advanced "smart phones," which sell for $400 to
$600, can download schedules and address books directly from a
Warranties on new phones typically last for a year but don't cover
loss or physical damage. Carriers often offer insurance policies, at a
cost of about $4 a month plus a deductible, but only about 10 percent
of cell phone users buy such plans, according to J.D. Power and
The cost of fixing phones isn't just a nuisance for consumers; it's
also a hassle for carriers, which typically spend hundreds of hours
testing phones for durability in labs and field tests before releasing
them to the public.
"As products got more complicated and expensive, we find it harder to
educate the technicians and to get them the right tools to repair
those devices," said Michael Cost, executive director of supply-chain
management for Cingular, which became the nation's largest cellular
carrier when it completed its merger with AT&T Wireless last week. In
2002, the average store carried eight to 10 models of phones. Now,
with all the added features, a store carries between 25 and 30 models,
Late last year, Cingular pulled technicians out of its 1,700 stores
around the country and switched to an "exchange-by-mail" program. The
company mails the customer a replacement phone that's been
refurbished. The customer mails the broken one to Cingular, which
repairs it and gives it to another customer needing an exchange. That
approach saves time for customers and a "significant" amount of money
for the company, which can fix the phones at a centralized site, Cost
Rival Verizon Wireless, which has no mail-exchange program, is hiring more
in-store technicians because customers like having technicians available,
spokesman John Johnson said.
Feature-packed smart phones, billed as pocket-size personal computers, are
especially vulnerable to software bugs.
"As mobile phones become PC-like, they also suffer some of the same
problems," said Gene Wang, chairman and chief executive of Bitfone
Corp., a company that has designed a way to send software fixes over
the air to a cell phone.
Despite all the new gadgetry, most cell phone breakage results from
"I've seen a few flip phones break in half," said Howard Rosenberg,
manager of a Simply Wireless store on Capitol Hill, who keeps some
replacement parts in stock but generally refers customers to their
carriers or third-party repair centers that specialize in fixing
The antenna on an old model, the Motorola v60, broke frequently but
was among the cheaper repairs, costing customers $35 if the device
wasn't covered by a warranty, Rosenberg said. Often, liquid crystal
screens go dead, or phones are dropped in water, like the customer's
phone that shorted out after falling into the Potomac River.
"Flushing it in the toilet -- I've heard that many times," Rosenberg said.
And, he added, "they go after it."
Not all complaints about broken phones turn out to be valid. Carriers
say a quarter to a third of customers coming in with problems simply
don't know how to use the phone or its features.
Dwain Gourdine, store manager of the Verizon Wireless store on G
Street in downtown Washington, said 30 to 40 customers come in on an
average day complaining of a problem that's the result of incorrect
usage. Some are trying to make calls in basements or other areas where
there is no coverage; others can't figure out the phone. "They're not
just phones anymore. They've got so many products and tools built into
them, so [users] need lots of education."
Many customers hate giving up their buggy or broken phones, even for a
"You're more reliant on technology, and when it goes down, you're
dead," said Burger, the law firm administrator, who finally got his
phone fixed by spending a lunch hour waiting for a technician's help
at a Verizon Wireless store. Asked what he would do without his phone,
Burger widened his eyes and said: "Cry."
=A9 2004 The Washington Post Company
*** FAIR USE NOTICE. This message contains copyrighted material the use of
which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. This
Internet discussion group is making it available without profit to group
members who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included
information in their efforts to advance the understanding of literary,
educational, political, and economic issues, for non-profit research and
educational purposes only. I believe that this constitutes a 'fair use' of
the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the U.S.
Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of
your own that go beyond 'fair use,' you must obtain permission from the
copyright owner, in this instance Washington Post Company.
For more information go to: