A few weeks ago, we covered the so-called “touch disease” that’s killing iPhone 6 and 6 Plus hardware well before its expiration date. The problem, according to all reports, arose because of design flaws intrinsic to the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. The phone’s tendency to flex under stress, combined with manufacturing deficiencies in how certain chips are attached to the motherboard inside the phone, leads to a problem where the integrated circuits (ICs) that allow the screen to sense when it’s being touched and react accordingly no longer work properly.
Apple, anxious to restore its good name and take care of the faithful customers who have spent hundreds or thousands of dollars on its products, has announced a courageous recall program to service the devices whether they are in warranty or not.
According to the repair facilities Vice has spoken to, the last few weeks have seen even more users flooding in to fix devices suffering from this specific failure. Right now, it’s impossible to tell whether the customers coming in to have their devices fixed are doing so because the problem is happening more often, or because they’re now aware of what’s happening.
The nature of “touch disease” is that the issue begins as an intermittent occasional problem, one that’s solved by a quick reboot. Later, the device can sometimes be fixed by flexing or bending it in specific ways. Touch disease occurs because Apple didn’t use an underfill layer between the touchscreen ICs and the PCB they’re mounted on. If your device flexes — and the iPhone 6 does flex — it can begin to break the solder joints. At first, the breaks are merely hairline cracks, and compressing or flexing the device is enough to close the gap and restore functionality. Eventually, they’ll break altogether, and that’s when the touchscreen becomes completely unresponsive.
“It’s absolutely a problem in the design. End users are not doing anything to cause this besides using the phone normally,” Mark Shaffer, of independent repair company iPad Rehab, told Vice. “Really all you can do is avoid any activity that would cause the phone to flex. Don’t drop it, definitely don’t put it in any case that requires you to apply force to the phone to get it into and out of the case. Don’t put it in your back pocket, don’t put it in your front pocket if it’s a tight pocket. Actually, don’t put it in any pocket.”
So the right way to use an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus is not to put it in your pocket, at all, ever. Got that? The problem has been exacerbated by Apple’s refurbishment strategy, which doesn’t check or replace the touchscreen ICs as part of that process. That means the replacement devices being handed out to customers are just as prone to failure as the original hardware. Compound that with how Apple is telling people to buy new hardware if they’re out of the warranty period, and you’ve got a growing problem that Apple, to date, has refused to engage with. A class-action lawsuit has been filed against the company, due mostly to its refusal to acknowledge it has a problem at all.
The problem is worse on the iPhone 6 Plus and now dominates repair cases. Jessa Jones, who founded iPad Rehab, told Vice she’s seeing the problem even on devices that have been kept in heavy-duty cases by Otterbox from Day 1. AppleInsider found that the problem is easily the largest single iPhone 6 failure and that Apple is absolutely aware of the issue. It just doesn’t plan to fix it, at least at the time of this writing. This problem doesn’t affect the newer-generation iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, and evidently Apple considers that good enough.
It’s hard not to contrast this situation against Samsung’s recent behavior with regard to the Galaxy Note 7. True, Samsung has a much more serious problem on its hands, since lithium-ion battery fires can cause substantial damage to life and property, whereas a simple dead iPhone is just a dead iPhone. But just because a problem is serious doesn’t mean companies always own up to it. Ford, Toyota, and VW all hid major manufacturing defects related to tires, unintended acceleration, and diesel pollution, respectively — even though all three of these issues directly risk lives (albeit on somewhat different time scales). The Android OS has taken a lot of flak for a broken security model and its fragmentation, but Samsung is at least willing to admit it when it has a flawed product on its hands.
For now, Apple would prefer you buy an iPhone 7 with less utility than its predecessor — except you can’t buy an iPhone 7 Plus in-person, since it didn’t stock enough of them. It’s enough to seriously make me personally consider moving to a different device the next time I upgrade. Any company with more than $200 billion in cash reserves can afford to fix some iPhones it broke by removing a critical component in a bid to save 10 micrograms and four cents off the final design*.