Tweaking Phone Designs Post-Release Makes Me Nervous

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Last week, we caught wind of an under-the-radar change that was taking place with the Nexus 4, leading to the addition of a couple small bumps upon the phone’s lower edge, presumably to keep the phone’s speaker from lying flush against a flat surface and muffling its sound output. If that was indeed the intention, the alteration seems to be an elegant, unobtrusive, gem of a solution. So why couldn’t I help but find myself a little upset?

What about all the Nexus fans who rushed to snag the smartphone during its first several, sometimes bumpy, months of availability? If that theory about enhancing speaker output is accurate, it would seem that either LG or Google identified a flaw in the original Nexus 4’s design, and cooked-up a fix for it. Even if we didn’t realize that there was anything wrong with that first wave of Nexus 4 handsets, the arrival of this new model crystallizes the previous hardware revision as one that’s inferior.

But hold on a minute; new, better smartphones come out all the time. Why does it matter that this new Nexus 4 is slightly better than the old one? Old designs are always being tweaked and released under new names, whether that’s upgrading the radio or adding a higher-quality display. Surely that’s OK.

Well, yes, but we’re not talking about upgrading specs here. The Nexus 4 redesign, as far as we know, is about correcting a design flaw. Even if Google released it as the Nexus 4.5, I’d still be miffed.

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that little design tweaks like this have the potential to be huge cans of worms that manufacturers might be better off not opening. Let’s look at why:

1) Say your smartphone is out; it’s been selling for weeks, and is in the hands of thousand of users. Why would you even consider changing its design at this point? Well, maybe you had a great idea for a way to make your phone even better: one of those wide-dynamic-range microphones like on the HTC One or Lumia 920 might appeal to your user base. Do you order the part swapped-in for newly produced units?

I would hope not. There’s nothing wrong with the original phone, and if you substantially improve it now, you’re going to have a whole lot of upset early adopters on your hands. You could always offer to retrofit existing handsets, but that’s a costly proposition that offers little immediate gain. Instead, you sit on that mic idea for the next phone you hope to release.

2) What if it turns out there’s some hardware flaw with your phone that’s interfering with its operation? Its impact would no doubt be noticed by users, who would probably be pretty vocal about their feelings. Sometimes, like with Antennagate, there’s a cost-effective solution to be found. In more severe cases, you’re just going to have to grin and bear it, correct the problem with future production runs, and start authorizing repair or replacements of the defective phones. It’s not ideal, but the cat’s already out of the bag, and inaction could be even more costly (should a class action lawsuit develop) than taking the steps to tweak a design.

3) Then there’s the Nexus 4’s case. While the original design may have room for improvement, the flat back isn’t truly a flaw – it may be less than ideal under all circumstances, but it generally doesn’t impact phone performance. At the least, it’s not a big enough problem to draw a lot of attention to itself; certainly, if users have been complaining, their voices have been drowned out by the likes of reports of cracked glass or concerns over battery life.

The problem here is the cost/benefit trade-off. You’re alerting existing owners that you believe the hardware you sold them is inferior to the new design; after all, why else change it? The issue isn’t severe enough to warrant any kind of retrofitting or to replace older hardware, so anyone with the old design is stuck with it.

Luckily for LG and Google, I don’t think that Nexus 4 owners will, as a whole, object to the change. For users like me with bumper cases on their phones, the speaker is already sufficiently raised when the phone lies flat. But even though I’m ultimately unaffected, the whole idea still doesn’t sit quite right.

It’s always going to be a judgment call, but unless there’s a serious problem with a phone, one users are raising a big stink about, manufacturers might just be better off leaving their designs alone.

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About The Author
Stephen Schenck
Stephen has been writing about electronics since 2008, which only serves to frustrate him that he waited so long to combine his love of gadgets and his degree in writing. In his spare time, he collects console and arcade game hardware, is a motorcycle enthusiast, and enjoys trapping blue crabs. Stephen's first mobile device was a 624 MHz Dell Axim X30, which he's convinced is still a viable platform. Stephen longs for a market where phones are sold independently of service, and bandwidth is cheap and plentiful; he's not holding his breath. In the meantime, he devours smartphone news and tries to sort out the juicy bitsRead more about Stephen Schenck!