Warranty firm blames iPhone 4's glass for 82% jump in damage claims

Even as Apple touts stronger glass, claims rise anyway, says SquareTrade

Apple's iPhone 4 is "significantly more prone to physical damage" than last year's iPhone 3GS, a company that provides after-sale warranties said today.

SquareTrade, which sells extended iPhone warranties, said the iPhone 4 has had 82% more shattered screen claims in its first four months than the iPhone 3GS did in the same time span during the summer of 2009.

The glass back of the iPhone 4 is the most likely culprit for the surge in claims, said Vince Tseng, SquareTrade's vice president of marketing.

"You now have twice as much glass to scratch or break," said Tseng, referring to the change Apple made to the iPhone's design. Earlier models of the iPhone, including the 3GS, sported a plastic back; the iPhone 4 features glass both on the front and the back of the device.

SquareTrade compared 20,000 iPhone 4 claims with a similar number filed in the early months of the iPhone 3GS' availability, and found that 3.9% of iPhone 4 owners reported a cracked screen, while only 2.1% of iPhone 3GS owners had done the same.

On one hand, the near doubling in the screen damage claim rate makes sense, said Tseng, since the iPhone 4 boasts double the amount of glass surface. But the data is disappointing, nonetheless.

"We're not seeing a reduction of claim cases on the front screen," Tseng said. "We had expected that the so-called Gorilla Glass would result in a decrease in the number of accidents, what with Apple's marketing about how much stronger the glass was in the iPhone 4. But strength doesn't mean it's resistant to cracking."

Apple has touted the aluminosilicate glass used for both the front and back of the iPhone 4 as "ultra durable," and "more scratch resistant than ever." Its current marketing message on the iPhone site also claims that the glass is 30 times harder than plastic.

"You apply enough pressure, you'll scratch the iPhone 4's glass, and as we all know from our cars' windshields, scratches can turn into cracks," said Tseng. Reports have surfaced on the Web of cracked back screens due to sand, dirt or grit trapped between that surface and some sliding cases.

Shortly after the iPhone 4's June launch, Tseng voiced concerns about Apple's move to back the smartphone with a glass surface.

SquareTrade's data appears to validate that concern. According to Tseng's projections, the iPhone 4's claim rate will be almost exactly double that of the iPhone 3GS' 12 months after the former's introduction.

"It does seem like a large percentage of iPhone owners feel it's a good idea to protect the phone with a case," acknowledged Tseng today, adding that that decision is even more important with the iPhone 4 and its all-glass back.

And the right kind of case, he stressed. "An Apple Bumper may help with the antenna issue, but it will go only so far to protect the iPhone 4," he said, referring to the edge-only plastic-and-rubber protector that Apple sells, and for several months, gave away to stem complaints about dropped calls.

Some industry watchers speculated at the iPhone 4's debut that Apple went for glass on the back to improve voice and data reception, long a sore spot with users in high density urban areas, such as New York and San Francisco.

"Apple may have [gone] with the Bumper because there's a lot of discussion by Apple fans about how beautifully designed the [iPhone 4] is, and that they don't want to hide that design," speculated Tseng.

Overall, the iPhone 4's failure rate -- as distinguished from the accident claim rate -- is about the same as the iPhone 3GS, said Tseng, who added that the iPhone's overall history at SquareTrade has been excellent. "The iPhone is a well-constructed device," he said.

SquareTrade doesn't yet know how the iPhone 4 stacks up against newer rivals, such as the Motorola Droid 2 and the HTC Droid Incredible, on warranty claims, although it is in the process of mining its data for comparisons. Even with twice as much glass as other smartphones, the iPhone 4 may still compare favorably to rivals, Tseng said.

The X factor, of course, is how people treat their smartphones, and whether they cover them with a protective case, he continued.

SquareTrade's iPhone reliability report can be downloaded from the company's site (download PDF).

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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