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  • 4 minute Read

Only A Radical Design Shift Can Fix Apple’s Bendy iPhone Problem

Abandoning its favorite material might be the best way for Apple to fix its design flaw.

The iPhone 6 is Apple’s thinnest iPhone ever. But as people are discovering, it’s also the bendiest, with many customers complaining that the frame of the iPhone 6 can be permanently bent just by sitting on it when it’s in your back pocket or putting it in a tight pair of jeans.

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Unbelievably, some people claim this isn’t a design flaw. Famous Apple pundit John Gruber, for example, argues that we should be “amazed” that the iPhone 6 doesn’t snap in half under pressure, and dismisses complaints by saying: “If you feel pressure like this on your iPhone 6 in your pocket, you need looser pants. And if you put your phone in your back pocket and sit on it, I’m not sure what to tell you.”

This argument is stupid, and you shouldn’t believe it.

Andrew Dent, vice president of material research at Material ConneXions, says that smartphones which permanently bend under normal use very definitely suffer from a design flaw, one that Apple might have to change its whole design aesthetic to fix in the future.

Bending the iPhone 6 Plus.

“When you design a product, the whole point of material selection is to find a material that is suitably durable to hold up to everyday use,” Dent tells Co.Design. “The aluminum Apple makes iPhones out of is durable and sturdy at a certain thickness, but it’s a balancing act. If the iPhone 6 is bending in people’s pockets, that means some Apple engineer shaved a few ounces off of the material that they shouldn’t have.”

An iPhone 6 bending without snapping in half isn’t an example of quality engineering, says Dent. No one should be “amazed” by it. Like plastic or glass, aluminum has the ability to flex and spring back into its regular shape as long as the material isn’t bent past its yield point. What makes the materials different, though, is that while glass shatters and plastic snaps, metal permanently bends.

But when looking at it through the lens of industrial design, a bent iPhone 6 is the same as one that has been snapped in half or shattered. It almost certainly was not created with the expectation that the frame would bend, and it’ll never be the same again. Even if you bend it back, it’ll be creased, and more susceptible to bending in the same place in the future. “Even if it otherwise still works, a bent iPhone 6 is a broken iPhone 6,” says Dent.

No wonder Apple is moving to replace bent iPhone 6‘s under warranty. But according to Dent, this isn’t a problem that we should expect to just go away: Apple can’t keep on making its devices thinner and lighter without ultimately abandoning aluminum.

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“As things get thinner and lighter, other industries generally move towards materials like titanium and composites to maintain durability,” says Dent. “But that’s not the aesthetic Apple is known for.” That’s because titanium and most composite materials like carbon and glass fiber need to be painted or otherwise coated in order to be sold in consumer products. But as Apple discovered with the release of the Titanium PowerBook G4 back in 2001, paint and coatings chip and crack. They just don’t have the so-called “material integrity” that Jony Ive likes.

Flickr user Michael M

There is one possible solution to Apple’s aluminum problem: liquidmetal, a space-age alloy capable of making incredibly durable, light devices. But although Apple has been sitting on the exclusive manufacturing rights to liquidmetal in consumer electronics for the last four years, the company has only made one product of the material so far: the SIM ejection pin for the iPhone 3G. The fact that Apple hasn’t yet shipped a more sizable product with liquidmetal strongly insinuates that they can’t scale up production affordably.

If Apple can’t produce liquidmetal at scale, that leaves Apple only a couple options going forward if they want to avoid bending iDevices. They can use thicker and heavier aluminum, which means that future iPhones will no longer necessarily be thinner or lighter than the ones that preceded it. Or they can change the aesthetics that the company is known for, trading aluminum iPhones for painted titanium or composite fiber iPhones instead. But to do the latter means abandoning the material that almost all of its current products revolve around.

In the meantime, Apple seems to be claiming that whatever the issue is, it’s not widespread. They say only nine people have contacted them about bent iPhones so far. That might be true, but it also seems like a clever strategy to distract from a legitimate design flaw. Keep in mind, Apple did exactly the same thing during Antennagate too, claiming the issue was being overblown, no one was complaining, and dropped calls weren’t happening. But despite Apple’s claims at the time, Antennagate was a real design problem: They ended up tweaking the design of the iPhone 4’s antenna in the iPhone 4S, then dropping it entirely for future iPhones.

Whatever Apple does, don’t expect the bending iPhone problem to go away immediately. No matter what, it’s a problem that requires either space-age metal or an entirely new approach from Apple to fully solve. In the meantime? Ignore our advice and get yourself a nice sturdy case.

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