It is a common scenario: a customer is nearing the end of a 24-month mobile phone contract and despite taking impeccable care of the device, suddenly and for no apparent reason, it stops working like it should. University of Sydney Professor of Media and Communications Gerard Goggin said technology companies across a range of consumer goods were increasingly using the “built-in obsolescence” tactic, so manufacturers could “flog” another product. “It’s a concept that has been obvious for a long time in terms of a consumer society,” he said. “And there’s a sense now in which the built-in obsolescence in devices is shorter than usual.” He said the mobile phone industry had adapted to the concept by setting up plans that allowed customers to “post pay” on 24-month plans with telecommunication companies, so they could avoid paying lump sums for new handsets. Professor Goggin said manufacturers used cheaper components in products and experimented with more plastics in an effort to push for a “quick turnover” of products. Consumer protection: facts and fiction ACCC deputy chairman Michael Schaper says there is a misunderstanding among many consumers that they are not covered if their phones malfunction.He said if a 24-month contract has been entered with a telco, then “the expectation” is that the handset should last the full 24 months, unless it is obviously due to consumer mistreatment.
Australian Consumer Law guarantees consumer protection for a reasonable length of time regardless of manufacturing warranties.”If you’ve got a 24-month contract and you’re paying money, you expect the phone is going to last at least that long. It’s a fairly fundamental issue,” Mr Schaper said.Mr Schaper said a spike in consumer complaints in 2009 and 2010 prompted the ACCC to take action on mobile phones.”When you buy something from a retailer, the consumer has every right to go back to the retailer and say, ‘make it good’,” he said.” The retail centre can’t fob them off and say, ‘you’ve got to go to the retailer’.”Mr Schaper said another spike in complaints late last year led the ACCC to take action with Apple. The company had previously made “misleading representations” to a number of consumers, incorrectly saying its phones were only covered under its 12-month limited warranty. And despite being both a retailer and a manufacturer, customers returning to Apple stores with malfunctioning devices were being told they had to go back to the manufacturer.”We expect bigger firms especially to have a much more sophisticated and a more proactive response to dealing with consumer issues,” Mr Schaper said.”If it’s a minor breakdown, the consumer is entitled to a replacement or repair. If it’s a major fault, it’s a replacement, repair or refund.”Minor is something that is an inconvenience but not the end of the world, but a phone that fundamentally doesn’t work or keeps refusing to work, I’d call that major.” He said the phenomenon first emerged for the mobile phone industry in Hong Kong about 10 years ago. “That had to do with the conspicuous consumption phenomenon – an intersection between the phones being fashionable and people increasingly wanting to have a new phone regularly,” Professor Goggin said. “It was also catered for by being able to change the features of the phone, such as being able to change the face of a Nokia.” Professor Goggin said there was still a market for longer lasting products – made obvious by the sale of heavy duty cases for mobile phones and other protective accessories – but when it came to the phones themselves, “it was a bit hard to point to example sometimes”. He said Nokia Vertu was an example of a luxury, high-end brand, but companies “clearly believed there was an upside in having built-in obsolescence”. “One of the features of mobile phone culture is novelty,” Professor Gerard said. “People want the latest mobile, and there’s still enough innovation in them to justify upgrades, although in three to five years’ time that won’t be the case. “There won’t be that much new in this mobile market, and I feel a bit like that at the moment. I’ve just got an iPhone 5, why would I want an iPhone 6? There’s not much difference in it.” Manufacturers ‘dropping the ball’ on software JC Twining, the owner of 14-year-old Adelaide-based mobile phone repair company Axiom Communications, has been fixing phones for 20 years and said one of the areas that manufacturers were most culpable was software. Photo: Mr Twining said they were “dropping the ball a bit”. “When Apple release a new software update, they release it for the current generation that’s out, as well as the previous one,” he said. “They also release it for a couple of older generations, but if you install that, your phone really starts to slow down.” He did not believe it was a deliberate move but said shareholders were “obviously very interested” in getting a return on their investments. “There is that conflict of interest,” Mr Twining said. “Do they make a phone that people want to replace every two years? Or do they make a phone that the consumer wants and wants to last a long time? “The tension between shareholders and customers is always interesting to me.” Dropped phones the most common repair Mr Twining said 80 per cent of the repairs he made were for damage caused when owners dropped their phones – usually breaking the glass. There’s a sense now in which the built-in obsolescence in devices is shorter than usual. Professor Gerard Goggin He said fading batteries were also a commonly reported problem, mainly because many people did not know how to look after lithium cells. “They still think they’re nickel-based and you have to run them down a lot,” Mr Twining said. “It’s not true. If you run it down every day and don’t plug it in in the evening and allow it to go flat, it might die as quickly as in six to 12 months and you need to have it replaced.” Batteries were also under strain due to processors “getting more and more intense”, increasing numbers of transistors and bigger screens. “And manufacturers are going for thinness,” Mr Twining said. “If they made phones half a centimetre thicker, we’d get three times the battery life. “It’s ridiculous, and the same applies for the glass. “If it was just a little thicker it would have much more impact resistance.” iPhone 6 spurs ‘abnormal’ repair numbers Mr Twining said the longevity of hardware components, such as speakers, microphones and buttons, generally had not changed for 20 years. Photo: He has, however, received an abnormally high rate of repair requests for the new iPhone 6 “from day one” following its launch last month. “Previously all the phones could be gripped in your hand while you’re walking down the street,” Mr Twining said. “But the iPhone 6 is a much bigger size and people are just balancing them on their hand rather than gripping them, and they’re falling.” Another typical repair he made was to the Samsung Galaxy S5 that was released earlier this year, as a water resistant device. “It’s designed to be water resistant and it’s pretty good, but the small print says that under no condition is this phone impervious to water,” Mr Twining said. “But people see the adverts and see people falling in swimming pools and think it’s fine.” A spokesperson for Apple declined to comment on the lasting integrity of iPhones or built- in obsolescence, but said its recent models had made a new sales record by selling more than 10 million devices in the first three days of its launch. Samsung did not respond to a request for comment.