My evil iPhone

The iPhone was supposed to revolutionize our lives. Why is it ruining mine?

Topics: Smart Phones, iPhone,

My evil iPhone

Not long ago, I would have confessed, with the shame that some people feel over having had multiple spouses, that I have been the owner of multiple iPhones. As with any bad union, there is a story behind each one’s demise. My starter phone lasted for a little more than a year, until the battery got old and the phone, which had never behaved well, really began to act up. The next one wasn’t around long: I dropped it; it shattered. My third, a fussbudget sort, got a little bit damp and refused to work. Now, I am on my fourth iPhone, whose screen cracked weeks ago, and which plagues me daily with its many bugs and quirks and connectivity issues. But the thought of yet another trip to the Apple Store Genius Bar (“the Smartass Bar,” as one friend calls it) fills me with the sort of deep, skeletal exhaustion and existential dread I might feel were I told I had to attend couples counseling for a fourth go-round. I’d rather not deal with it.

With my second iPhone, and even my third, I still blamed myself for the trouble. I’m clumsy, scatterbrained and accident-prone. But by the fourth device, it occurred to me that the problem might be it, the thing, not me. The late-June reports that iPhones were overheating and subsequently going berserk, their displays dimming and cellular signals weakening, confirmed my suspicion. (As did leaving my iPhone in the car for an hour on a blazing hot afternoon: For days afterward, the screen flickered like an old television set on the fritz.) Now, after reading that several iPhones have exploded, action-flick style, I at last feel free to say it: The iPhone sucks. It makes life miserable. I loathe the iPhone.

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I am not alone in my anguish. You might say an anti-iPhone movement is afoot. When I told a fellow journalist friend that my iPhone was going to end my career, she exclaimed, “I told that to the guy at the AT&T store yesterday!” There is a Web site (ihatemyiphone.com) devoted solely to iPhone animosity: “Hating your iPhone is normal. You are not alone. Telling us about your hate will make you feel better. That’s a promise!” Some of the posts are quotidian (“where to begin …? No copy and paste … no forwarding text messages … battery life beyond horrible … WHY DID I SIGN A TWO YEAR CONTRACT”); others are hilarious (“I left it in hotel rooms throughout Europe hoping someone from housekeeping would steal it because then I wouldn’t feel as guilty as I would if I’d given it away, thrown it off a bridge or simply stopped using it … No-one would steal it”). Many are alarmingly intemperate, displaying the sort of boundless frustration that only bad technology — screwing, as it does, with your social and professional lives, and leaving you feeling helpless, as though caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare — can engender. “First 2 iPhones were duds. Crap quality overpriced junk … Apple can just fuck right off.” A few are bizarrely poetic in their iPhone-induced rage. One poster wrote:

my iPhone is a piece of shit
fuck this fucking piece of shit
it can suck my dick
twice

This sort of exasperation was also evident in many of the nearly 1,500 online responses to Virginia Heffernan’s April column about hating her new iPhone (“refined, introverted, mysteriously chilled”) in the New York Times. “I hate my iPhone too! It does everything except basic phone functions well. Try making a call or sending a text, or even just typing on the thing,” writes “Chase T.” The comment gets right to the heart of the collective annoyance: This allegedly revolutionary item, this magical gadget that promised to change our lives, fails at even the most elementary tasks. In an online video titled “The I Hate My Cellphone Film Festival,” New York Times technology writer David Pogue interviewed several subjects who grumble about issues that, though brands are never named, are obviously specific to the iPhone — calls lost despite a full set of bars, voice mails turning up six days late. Last month, a panel of federal judges consolidated a dozen cases that had been filed against Apple, claiming, as the court order read, “that Apple and, where named, AT&T misrepresented to the public the speed, strength and performance of the iPhone 3G on AT&T’s 3G network.” Two of the plaintiffs have requested class-action status; if it is granted, Apple may face millions of lawsuits. Not surprisingly, Apple has “tried to stifle the lawsuits,” as an article in Computerworld put it.

What a colossal letdown the iPhone has been. Remember the hype, the promise, the hysterical wind-up to its June 2007 release? The iPhone was supposed to be our savior. Dubbed “the Jesus phone” by bloggers, it was, in the words of Steve Jobs, the first time we had seen “an iPod, a phone, and an Internet mobile communicator” in one. Time magazine called it the “Invention of the Year.” Wired magazine bestowed upon it the honor of “most anticipated gadget of all time.” And it was. Or it sure seemed like it. (Then again, so did the Segway scooter once.) People camped out overnight in long, serpentine lines, as though for big-act concert tickets, to buy a $600 phone. Soon enough, everywhere you went there was iPressure: Friends showing off their iPhone’s lovely graphic interface, its touch-screen capabilities, its hypertext ease, with arguably more enthusiasm than they displayed for their children or pets. The iPhone quickly became an emblem of cool, of the young, hip and free — or of those who liked to think they were. Anyone who remained BlackBerry-loyal was considered stodgy and dull; they had corporate jobs (or often just job-jobs), no time to mess around with a crazy new phone and no taste for superior design. The tyranny of the iPhone had begun.

My own odyssey began around this time, in July 2007, when I too succumbed. Almost immediately the iPhone began to compromise my quality of life. It wouldn’t let me search for an e-mail or send or receive photos via text. (Does anyone even bother to type in that jumble of letters and numbers to view a photo?) I had been warned about its deficits in advance. What I didn’t expect was its speed, or rather its pokey lack thereof — it’s s-l-o-w — and a battery that is too anemic to support a full day of errands or travel. Many times since I became an iPhone owner, I have found myself sitting on the filthy floor of an airport or buying coffee I don’t want at Starbucks, just so I can plug into an outlet and charge up my dead phone.

Then there’s the AT&T network, the culprit behind so much voice mail and e-mail misery. The network is, in a word, awful. In a survey that made its way around the Internet last week, even customers who considered themselves “satisfied” with the iPhone (200 were polled) can’t stand the AT&T network. And it is worse in some places than others — like, ironically, Los Angeles, land of long commutes and deals brokered by cellphone. When I’m in New York for work, service and reception are not as elusive as they are in Los Angeles, where I live and spend most of my time. (“Is it really so much worse in L.A.?” I asked a salesman during one of my many treks to the iPhone store. “Yes,” was his unequivocal response.) For complicated life reasons not worth going into, I’ve lived in six different residences since I bought my first iPhone, and in every one I could only get service in random pockets of the house, if at all. Friends and especially interview subjects would grow irritated and distracted, as I was repeatedly forced to call them back after sudden lapses in our connections. The calls that go straight to voice mail, though, are the worst byproducts of the network’s weakness. Those messages pool silently, while the iPhone never deigns to give a signal or beep of any kind to indicate that they’re idling in your mailbox. I have frequently missed important work calls, only to get the voice mail hours, and sometimes (if I haven’t left the house) days, later. It’s not like anyone believes you: My phone wasn’t working is the dog-ate-my-homework excuse of the digital age.

It turns out the supposedly amazing innovations of the iPhone aren’t so amazing, either. Like the touch screen, for instance, with its lack of tactile feedback. On a BlackBerry, you can feel the discrete keys, Braille-like, as you hit them; this allows for multitasking or surreptitious working (under the table at dinner, say, or — terrible but true — while driving). With an iPhone, you have to stare at the keys while you type, making it impossible to do anything else. And wasn’t it promised that the one-finger typing would, like certain forms of exercise, grow quicker and easier over time? Shouldn’t it have been obvious that typing with a single index finger would always be slower than typing with two thumbs? It’s also a bother that the keys often stick, and because they’re so close together, it’s easy to hit the wrong one.

This brings me to the auto-correct function, also known as “predictive text,” which anticipates what you will write before you write it. When I try to type “been,” a common enough word, the iPhone writes “Bern,” as in the city in Switzerland. “HIV” comes up as the default misinterpretation of “give.” (“You can just HIV it to me when I see you,” I wrote when trying to obtain a key from my landlord.) A friend named Nick tells me that his iPhone interprets his name as “Buck” and that he often sends notes signed with this macho designation before noticing the error. The potential for auto-correct embarrassment is obviously high: Great misunderstandings in iPhone history. Even worse, this function makes you feel like a gadget is bossing you around. (Or like that friend who always finishes your sentences with the wrong word. A: “I feel so …” B: “Bloated?” A: “No! Happy …”) A phone that tells you what word you want when it’s not even the right word is a phone that claims it knows better. Needless to say, the smug, narcissistic little iPhone always spells its own name correctly. (It’s true that this hideous function can be disabled; of course, turning it off means its lone blessing, the automatically inserted apostrophes, is lost.)

But it was earlier this year, with a purchase of the iPhone 3G, that my problems became truly unmanageable. I don’t know why I bought it, given how unhappy I was with my first iPhone. Perhaps it happened the same way that some people get into yet another bad relationship — this time is going to be different. Or maybe I was seduced, again, by promises. The awesome apps! The improved speed! The longer battery life! The $200 price tag! At first, things seemed to get better, at least in one department: fewer dropped calls. But the phone was about as hearty as a crystal goblet, fracturing instantly when it slipped out of my hands in a parking lot. The iPhone that replaced that one was even more fragile, almost like an orchid, requiring all the right conditions (moderate temperature, low moisture) to thrive. In recent months, with my fourth device (my third 3G), the iPhone’s neurotic, thoroughbred temperament has stood fully revealed. After overheating and cracking, both of which necessitated visits to the iPhone store — I bought an unappealing plastic cover, a condom for the phone — the little beast began turning itself off and on at will, hoarding e-mails and disappearing text messages. If the phone was previously allowing voice mail messages to pool, now it seemed to be holding them for ransom. Even when it has service, messages don’t come through, and then later show up all at once, as though the iPhone has finally decided it’s in the mood to release them. Last week, all of my contacts in the address book vanished before inexplicably reappearing. The phone is worse than an orchid; it’s a high-maintenance techno-girlfriend whose demands are inscrutable and impossible to meet.

And so, last week, I made a final foray to the Apple store to investigate. In the front window hung a sign touting a band had made their entire album on an iPhone. I could probably use my iPhone to paralyze the entire power grid of California, I thought, and here I am worried about dropped calls. I spotted several iClerks in their turquoise T-shirts.

“I’m a journalist,” I told a tall one with a gentle face, “and I’m wondering if a lot of people have problems with the iPhone?”

He looked at me blankly. “Problems?”

I decided to get more specific. “Do people have a problem with their screen cracking, for example?”

“Cracking?” he repeated, looking at me as though I were in fact doing just that.

I found another clerk, a short man with a few wisps of blond hair on his head. “There are 20 million iPhone users out there, so if there are a few people who are unhappy, that’s like less than one half of 1 percent,” he said, tossing off what seemed like bunk statistics, since, according to Nielsen, there are around 6.4 million iPhone subscribers.

I asked him if customers often came in to complain about their iPhone.

“Sure, a lot of people come in with all different problems,” he said.

Could he tell me what kinds of problems?

“No.”

I went in search of someone less laconically patronizing. This time, I decided to ask my questions as a consumer, not as a reporter. I found a man with ginger-colored hair and a chirpy but clipped manner who was selling an iPhone to a television writer. I asked him about the network.

“Not a fan of the AT&T network, but it’s the only network we have,” he said.

I moved on to the fragile, easily cracked screen.

“I’ll make you a promise,” he said smugly. “Don’t drop your phone. It won’t shatter.”

Um, thanks.

My boyfriend, who had accompanied me, asked him why he liked the iPhone. He looked at us, the expression on his face saying it all: If you need to ask that, you don’t deserve to own an iPhone.

“I love them, and I don’t even work for Apple,” his customer offered. “This is my fourth one.”

The clerked topped him. “I’ve had seven.” Among the seven phones he’d owned, four were “just lemons” — he recounted trouble with the headset, trouble with call waiting. At last he’d found an iPhone free of kinks. “You just have to get the right one,” he said. But seven iPhones to arrive at one that works? That sounded like searching for a life partner. I began to wonder if iPhone ownership wasn’t like marriage in the ’50s, everybody pretending they’re happy with their spouses but secretly, behind closed doors, feeling awful and taking pills in the basement.

As I spoke to the clerk, much of what’s infuriating about iPhone culture instantly became clear. Both the Apple salesmen and the company they work for (which, instead of apologizing for the exploding phones, called them “isolated incidents“), give the distinct impression that if you have problems with the iPhone, it’s not the phone that’s at fault, it’s you. You left it in your car to overheat. You don’t understand the surpassing sophistication of its design. But the idea that we’re supposed to be grateful for its very existence starts to grate. The abiding concept behind technology has long been user-friendliness, and yet now there is a device so overwhelmingly awesome that the person has to adapt to the device. This is the message that enrages people. It’s as though the master-servant relationship inherent in all technology has been reversed. You are a tool of the iPhone, rather than it being one for you. How dare you ask it to do something so simple as place a call?

Several calls to Apple yielded an answer (or sort of) from Apple spokeswoman Teresa Brewer. Upon hearing my list of the iPhone’s most common problems, she told me that Apple wouldn’t address “random complaints.”

They’re not random, I replied, but expressed over and over again by many iPhone owners.

Individual complaints,” she corrected. Another Apple public relations executive named Maria Rodriquez called me back — I’d left messages with four people — and suggested I send an e-mail. I did. In reply, she sent me a consumer satisfaction survey, in which Apple ranked “among the best” in all categories except “battery aspects,” and links to several lists of the features of the new iPhone 3GS. Users can finally cut and paste, send photos via text and search for an e-mail.

Maybe I’m a masochist, but when I heard this, I found myself oddly, surprisingly … hopeful. Maybe, I thought, this time will be different. Who knows? Number five could be the perfect match.

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