The bathtub and smartphone reliability…

If you’ve ever worked on a project that involves building a completely integrated system, or indeed a specific product involving the marriage of hardware and software,  then the chances are you’ve come across reliability engineering and the long-established bathtub curve.  If you aren’t familiar with the bathtub curve then this blog post gives a description of it in a ‘real world’ kind of way.  

What’s tweaked the Badger’s interest in reliability? Simple. Anger with a brand of smartphone. Just over 2 years ago the Badger purchased a new smartphone. Just before its warranty expired it gave up the ghost and wouldn’t charge. It was checked out under warranty and, as is often the norm these days, a brand new ‘n.1’ version of the device arrived as its replacement. This one, now slightly out of warranty, has recently decided that everyone the Badger calls, and everyone who calls the Badger, is a whisperer with a barely audible voice. Its grossly inconvenient, and there doesn’t seem to be a fix other than to return it to the factory who will probably just send out a new handset, again.

What irks is that there has been two fundamental problems with this brand’s device in just over two years – rather intolerable for a product that cost a significant sum.  At first the Badger thought he’d just been unlucky, until he came across a graph from a survey undertaken across smartphone brands by Which?  It shows that, on average, only 56% of smartphones are fault free after 3 years and only 14% are fault free after 5 years.  The Badger wondered if smartphone designers and manufacturers pay enough attention to reliability when engineering their products.  Of course, they will say they do, but is it really enough? If consumers pay hundreds of pounds, if not more, for a smartphone then isn’t it right for them to expect the average percentage fault free after 3 years to be higher than 56%?

The Badger is fully aware that a) obsolescence is likely to kick in before a smartphone really reaches the ‘wears out’ part of the bathtub, b) that with continuous hardware and software innovation in the smartphone market means fast obsolescence is just a fact, and c) that failure rates in most brands have reduced over the years. But the 2020 statistics for the global scale, use and importance of these small computers that provide everything in your pocket’ must surely mean the devices need the reliability levels of ‘critical infrastructure’. An average of 56% having faults after 3 years suggests that’s a long way off and the bathtub curve currently feels like it’s a completely horizontal line high up the Y axis from the outset!

There’s one final thing. The Badger will not be buying another smartphone from the brand that triggered the anger above. Customer loyalty has to be earned, and that means the product has to be fundamentally reliable.    


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