The bendable iPhone mess legitimately started as an accident: skinny jeans were in style, and Apple’s newest phone had a different metal for its frame. They’d switched to aluminum, a lightweight metal that wasn’t quite as sturdy as previous casings, and many noticed the frame could be bent by hand. The phones would also bend under the pressure of being sat on for long periods of time. Some online trolls did post pictures suggesting the phone was bendy intentionally, and that users could bend it however much they wanted. This is a lie. Don’t do that. What caused #BendGate, though?
Aluminum frames for phones wasn’t a bad idea. In a perfect world where phones aren’t kept in pockets while sitting (or even better: kept in a purse or bag), that style of frame works completely fine. Users know by now that Apple will trade a lot for looks and feel, and the aluminum was supposed to be fine; it was more likely to bend, but it wasn’t supposed to be prone to it. When the first few people reported the issue, Apple dismissed them as unique situations that didn’t warrant a public statement, or a change to their warranty policy.
This goes wrong as soon as people begin looking at their phones and start noticing a twist in their own devices after a normal amount of stress, i.e sitting down with the phone in-pocket for long periods of time. This damage is pretty minor – if the phone still works, a lot of people are content to just ignore it, the same way you’ll see kids texting on badly cracked screens.
While the official number of complaints about the bend are low, it might be in part because of how sturdy the insides of the phone are. Even bends worse than normal couldn’t take the phone offline. The bend is a livable defect, and it takes a week to get back from the shop, even assuming you got it tagged as ‘under warranty’. I wouldn’t take that deal – a week with no phone for a bend I can barely see? Heck no! The problem is usually small. If it hadn’t become #BendGate, I might not even be writing about it. However…
When it came out that Apple knew it might happen, people wanted warranty to cover it. As they should. Even though it was fairly minor, it was a defect.
Unfortunately, they didn’t think that. There were so few users who had a phone-breaking bend that Apple still thought it wasn’t worth addressing. “The phone still works, right?” And if users didn’t like it, why don’t they just buy a case? Protip for tech companies: don’t sell a device with a problem you left unsolved on purpose so you can then sell a solution to the problem. That’s not what Apple did – they didn’t expect this to become such an issue – but it’s what it looked like. And consumers are unwilling to let it go when the item’s as high-price as the iPhone 6+.
Lack of Guidance
Apple’s lack of guidance on the issue in-store compounded the problem. Depending on the tech you spoke to, you might get the repair. Or, more often, you’d get stuck with that bend or an out-of-warranty replacement screen… a replacement which, at the time, cost about half as much as the actual phone did. It was up to the tech’s discretion, and without overarching guidance from Apple, the techs did the best they could with their training. It’s not the tech’s fault.
Suddenly #BendGate explodes and becomes a conspiracy: Apple money-grubs for new cases and screens. They made a phone that bends too easily, and then they won’t replace the casing when it bends which forces people who want it fixed (now, after seeing news about it) to pay for a new phone casing.
Yikes. And yet, when the 7 came out with an aluminum frame, it didn’t get as much attention. Why?
Much like the aux cord memes, few people were actually deforming the phone so badly the electronics inside shut off. If they were, it was generally from a ‘stress test’, or doing something wacky that would have bent the iPhone 5 and below.
And then when all the pictures of people intentionally stress-testing their phones came out, people began posting the images to social media, which made the problem seem much bigger than it was. In reality, it seemed like the issue was localized to just below the volume buttons, on the side – a weak point in any phone casing. It’s where the metal’s thinnest. They seemed to fix this somewhat for 7 and completely for 8 if searching “bent iPhone” is any indication. Most of the problems came from the Plus versions of 6 and 7. The phone was also larger than other phones at the time: see this 2014 article which unironically calls the iPhone 6 Plus gigantic. Other phones made out of the same stuff weren’t as big as Apple’s phones yet, so they didn’t get all bendy and weak like the iPhone 6.
What does it all mean?
Well, it mostly comes down to a combination of policy and testing. There’s no real way to account for fashion trends. If you told a phone manufacturer that they should stress test for teens putting their phones in their shoes because leggings had come back into style, you’d probably be laughed at. Trends come and go, and the manufacturer’s not going to design around a trend that might be gone in two weeks.
If you told them that skinny jeans were on their way back in, and the cloth of the back pockets was stronger than the aluminum casing while sitting, they’d probably dismiss that too. In fact, that’s exactly what they did! They knew it could bend, but they didn’t expect it to – and they didn’t expect so many people to break or deform their phones recreating pictures that other people posted. Social media just happened to take it and run with it before they were able to form a response.
Engineering for every situation is impossible. There will always be someone who manages to set their phone on fire with nail polish remover, or somehow gets broken glass in the charging port, or drops it into a sauce they’re cooking…this bend is no different. An attempt to cut weight and cost backfires.
The Odds Weren’t Bad
Apple took a bet: the phone wouldn’t bend in most cases. And in most cases, it didn’t. But the cases it did bend made them look awful. A cascade of poor choices made BendGate what it was. Every step was a bet: “they won’t bend their phone by sitting on it, but if they do it won’t break it, but if it does break our techs will put it under warranty, but if they don’t… well, they probably will.”
Not a bad bet, just a series of choices. Really, any number of issues could have turned into BendGate. Because the bend was easy to recreate and fairly harmless, but annoying, it became an overnight scandal where other similar problems didn’t. The Samsung battery issue spent less time in the news because it required an immediate recall, and Samsung acted fast. It wasn’t harmless. The issue of the screen cracking when dropped was harmless, but it wasn’t easily recreate-able, and it was usually covered under warranty. So while Samsung repairs their batteries and Apple works on their glass strength, BendGate hit social media and hung there.