Works in progress

5 Feb 2009

As ‘beta culture’ moves mainstream, are buggy smart phones the new reality?

With touchscreen smart phones becoming the order of the day, the two biggest mobile phone releases of 2008 were undoubtedly the iPhone 3G from Apple and RIM’s BlackBerry Storm.

However, soon after the iPhone 3G arrived in stores worldwide in July 2008, some customers were complaining of patchy 3G reception and dropped calls.

Although at first Apple did not comment on this, by August 2008 a third software update was released, which “improved communication with 3G networks”.

When RIM brought its new BlackBerry Storm smart phone to market in November 2008, customers reported, among other problems, sluggish touch interface and accelerometer response. A software update was duly released in December to try to tackle some of these bugs.

RIM and Apple are not alone: HTC, Samsung and Palm have all released software patches in the past for various smart phone handsets.

Is this ‘release now, patch later’ attitude becoming the norm? According to the surprisingly honest RIM co-chief executive Jim Balsillie in a recent interview with The New York Times, the answer is yes.

Balsillie acknowledged that the Storm “just about made it” to market in November, just in time for pre-Christmas shopping, and also said that the rush to market and software malfunctions along the way were the “new reality” of the modern smart phone.

Smart phones are becoming increasingly complex to develop and produce, he said by way of explanation.

“Balsillie’s ‘new reality’ of buggy smart phones is a limp excuse for rushing out a product just to hit the all-important US ‘Black Friday’ sales,” says Shane McAllister, CEO of mobile-comms firm Mobanode.

“Just because consumers are used to betas (unfinished versions of software releases), service packs and software updates on PCs, doesn’t mean they are open to it, nor do they like it when it comes to their phones.”

It used to be the case that early adopters in the technology world would form the bulk of testers on new software, but global companies such as Google have made beta testers of us all.

“Phones are such personal devices through which we carry out all our social and business communication, and most people put a lot of choice and personal preference into choosing a phone, much more so than with a PC,” says McAllister.

“Additionally, while your average PC lasts 3 to 5 years, phones are changed on an almost yearly basis. Therefore, the phones chosen are expected to just work, and if they cause frustration, through glitches and lack of testing, the consumer will choose a different brand next time around – fact.”

Consumer frustration aside, there is the security aspect to consider: “I have to admit that I do have concerns over the growing ‘beta culture’,” says Brian Honan, an independent IT consultant who specialises in information security.

“The problem is compounded with what is now acceptable to release to consumers. In many cases, tagging the phrase ‘beta’ to your product seems to be like a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

In spite of this beta tag, a lot of these products are snapped up by the public without any consideration of the potential risks, says Honan.

“Would people buy a microwave, car or gas boiler if they were told it is not fully tested? Yet, for electronic gadgets, computer systems and application software, the general public seems to be comfortable entrusting their digital life to untried and untested solutions,” he explains.

Honan uses Google’s range of applications by way of illustration: Gmail is still beta, as is Google Docs, yet millions of people and businesses are entrusting sensitive and personal data to these applications.

Honan says that because of an increasingly competitive marketplace, many of the vendor companies have commercial deadlines to meet in order to satisfy shareholders and customers.

“To compete, products are becoming more and more sophisticated and complex. It used to be that all you used your mobile phone for was making and receiving phone calls.

“Now, your phone is a mini-computer that can take pictures and videos, record and play music and browse the internet. However, complex systems are very difficult to secure properly.

“The problem is that criminals and hackers actively look to exploit bugs in these systems. Badly designed and/or complex systems that are not properly tested will result in those criminals being successful,” he warns.

The worst bit is that we as consumers seem to be unaware of the risks, says Honan. We want our latest and greatest gadgetry or applications for bragging rights, but do not read the small print.

“People simply don’t stop to worry if the products they are using could result in their data being lost, corrupted or accessed by others,” says Honan.

“This is compounded by the fact that companies often have clauses in their licence agreements that protect them from legal action from the customer, should their device or application fail in such a way as to cause them damages.

“So, if your sensitive financial details are stolen from your shiny new phone by criminals due to a bug in the phone’s software, then you have little or no recourse with the manufacturer,” adds Honan.

Should we drop the smart phones or hire a lawyer to decode the small print?

“I’m all for the greater adoption of smart phones, and the ability to upgrade and update software, but not to the detriment of testing the software and hardware before it gets to the market, just because it can be updated at a later date,” says McAllister.

“Oversights like this from RIM, in pushing an unfinished product to market, do untold damage to a brand. Heretofore, if a customer was annoyed with a product, they were a single voice. However, now with social media and blogs, that single voice can find others, and together as a group they have the power to negatively impact a brand – they are a strong force to be reckoned with.

“Beta software on phones – no thanks!,” McAllister concludes.

By Marie Boran