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Do We Need a Cellphone Lemon Law?

Do We Need a Cellphone Lemon Law?

If you buy a car and it turns out something's seriously wrong with it, invoking your state's lemon law can remedy the situation relatively cheaply and easily. The law also serves as a financial incentive for car makers not to release unreliable vehicles. Considering what a commitment buying a phone can be and the problems companies like Apple are having with their phones, is it time for a cellphone lemon law?

By Rob Enderle
07/12/10 5:00 AM PT

When Apple brings out a new phone, my advice typically is to wait a couple of months for the problems to surface, and then they will either be fixed or known and you can make a more educated decision.

However we haven't seen the number of problems with the latest iPhone since, well, ever.

To summarize, the antenna is badly designed, the signal strength software is inaccurate (and evidently has always been inaccurate), the proximity sensor that's supposed to keep your face from dialing the phone is broken, battery life is in the toilet again, and the new OS is crashing. In related news, Apple has discovered rampant fraud on iTunes. Folks are comparing this new phone to Windows Vista, which is kind of ironic and funny if you aren't Apple or a user dealing with these problems.

But the iPhone 4 isn't the first phone that has sucked, and given that you are tied to these things for years, I wonder if there shouldn't be a cellphone lemon law.

Also last week, Amazon launched a new Kindle in what has to be the lowest-key launch in the segment. I bought one, and since I'm a huge Kindle fan, I figured I'd make it my product of the week.

What's a Lemon Law?

Lemon laws exist in a number of states with regard to automobiles, and there are legal firms (here is an example) that specialize in related cases. Lemon law protection is invoked if a problem with a vehicle appears to be endemic and cannot be corrected through normal warranty service. Remedies can range from replacing the vehicle to cash discounts on future purchases to large cash settlements and judgments.

The law serves two primary purposes: It helps buyers get to a remedy for a poorly built products relatively cheaply and easily, and it provides a big financial incentive for the car makers not to release unreliable vehicles. It also serves a secondary purpose, which is more like a relief valve for people who might otherwise enter into broad class-action litigation. It doesn't prevent this litigation, it just provides for a lower-cost method of dealing with the problem, and that likely reduces the opportunity for large, expensive, class-action lawsuits substantially.

So in effect, a lemon law (done right) not only protects the consumer but actually can be a good thing long-term for the vendor as well.

Is iPhone 4 a Lemon?

Several of us were clearly thinking of some variant of a story comparing the iPhone 4 to Windows Vista unfavorably. Sam Diaz got his "Is the iPhone 4 becoming the Windows Vista of Apple?" up first, so he gets the credit, but this phone appears to fit the profile of a lemon. More important, to avoid a recall of the phone, Apple initially tried to pass the problem off as a software problem. They have since recanted, but not before a number of lawsuits were filed and they were broadly attacked in the media.

Since then, however, other problems with this phone have surfaced. Apparently because the proximity sensor is faulty, the phone doesn't know you are trying to talk on it rather than trying to type with your ear. Apparently this is only a problem if you clean your ears as, and I kid you not, this problem is apparently caused by light bounding around inside a clean ear. We could write an entire column on iPhone 4 problems, but over at CIO.com, Tom Kaneshiga has already done that.

A smartphone's primary purpose is to make phone calls, and a smartphone needs to connect to a network to work. A car's primary purpose is transportation, and a car has to run in order for it to get you someplace. If you had a car that ran intermittently and started up when you didn't intend it to, you'd have a major problem. If you couldn't correct that problem under warranty, you'd likely have a lemon. If to correct the problem you had to destroy the car's looks by buying an expensive and massive rubber band and wrapping it around your car, you'd still have a lemon, you'd just look like an idiot for driving a rubber-band-wrapped car.

Yes, to address the iPhone 4 antenna, you have to wrap it with a custom US$29 rubber band that you have to buy. A free Live Strong wristband also works. This seems over the top, even for Apple, insane. But Apple is hardly the first company to bring out a troubled phone.

Wrapping Up: A Lemon Law for Phones

Now most carriers allow you to exchange a phone within a 30-day window, but few will provide a full refund and will instead offer you a different phone. Since many folks ended up on AT&T because of the iPhone and likely wouldn't touch this carrier with a 10-foot pole otherwise, this isn't the great remedy it might otherwise be. Next phone down in popularity is the Verizon Droid, and it's over at, well, Verizon. AT&T won't swap for it. At least not without a few government encouragements like a boot up the ...

So while you can generally swap out a bad phone, you are typically tied to whatever contract you signed for the duration and now have an ugly choice of continuing to use the phone you wanted that works badly on a service you likely don't like, or to use a phone you didn't want on a service you still don't like.

I think option #3 for giving you a lemon product is to put you back the way you were before you bought the phone and give you a check for $100 for the aggravation they put you through in giving you a product that should have been tested better. There should be a bigger penalty for releasing crap into the market, particularly if you are a company that made fun of a competitor who did the same thing.

Granted, for the iPhone 4, the one field-test phone was lost during the mandatory "drunk user test," but I don't think other companies have similar compelling excuses and should be better motivated to bring out acceptable products. What do you think -- should there be a lemon law for cellphones?

Product of the Week: Stealth Kindle DX

Product of the Week

This week a new Kindle launched to a massive ad campaign and long lines at ... oh wait, that was the iPad a few weeks ago. No visible campaign, and Amazon doesn't have brick and mortar stores.

They do have a new Kindle, though, and it's black and beautiful. I'm a huge Kindle fan and user, and I moved to the DX when it came out early this year. This is because, while it is bigger, heavier and more expensive than a standard Kindle, you can also make the print really large and still get enough of it on a page to keep from getting thumb cramps (you turn pages by tapping a button with your thumb).

Amazon's New Kindle DX
Amazon's New Kindle DX

The new product is black because black remains the new black and white is only the new black in parts of Asia (and I don't live in Asia); the old DX was white. They have also dramatically improved screen contrast, which also helps you see text in low light, while dropping the price about $50. This means you can buy around two of these things for the price of an iPad + services, and the wireless capability in the Kindle is tied to the cost of the book, so no monthly charges (and the book cost is the same as it is on other readers including the iPad).

The Kindle still represents, in my eyes, the best electronic reader in the market. This new Black Kindle DX is the best Kindle yet, and I'm on record saying I'd take it over an iPad. As a result, the new Kindle DX is my product of the week.


Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.


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