As 2011 draws to a close, I wanted to bring up an issue that's been bothering me all year, and that is that it seems that the entire notion of Quality Assurance has completely gone out the window with every major consumer electronics product that I've gotten my hands on.
I don't want to pick on a single manufacturer per se, as this disease of "let's throw it out there even though it isn't quite ready yet" has become more or less an industry-wide epidemic.
Part of this problem I think can be attributed to the fact that our consumer products have become that much more sophisticated than in previous decades.
Popular products such as smartphones and tablets run their own embedded operating systems which pretty much make them full-blown computers in their own right, and each specific device needs to be QAed for device drivers and overall stability and performance before it is released to the general public.
In the case of products that use something like Android, you're dealing with a generic OS or foundation that then needs to be modified or optimized to run on that product, which is comprised of different chipsets and component parts.
On top of that you have software stacks that include embedded applications that make the product experience unique or makes up the entire "value add".
Because the market for consumer electronics has become so competitive, with so many players vying for attention in key growth areas such as tablets and smartphones, the pressure to get these products shipped is now greater than ever.
So what we have now is an systemic illness across the entire industry where we have these extremely sophisticated products that need a significant amount of QA with the added pressure of having to get them out the door fairly quickly.
This is a seemingly incurable condition where manufacturers are now fully aware that their products may have to ship with known bugs or other significant problems in order to make deadlines to compete in the marketplace.
If there are significant issues, they fix them later with "over the air updates" for the poor bastards that took the leap and became early adopters.
The HP TouchPad is a prime example of a product that should have never been launched in the condition it was in. They actually sold this with excessive system logging turned on by default so the OS ran dog slow, requiring that you add 3rd-party patches to the thing in order to get acceptable performance.
The mainstream consumer electronics reviewers like David Pogue and Walt Mossberg at the New York Times and Wall Street Journal absolutely annihilated Hewlett-Packard in print for shipping such an abortion and the terrible reviews eventually resulted in the product being cancelled.
But had the TouchPad shipped with the performance boost that it received after its first update out of the gate, I think the reviews would have been a lot more positive, the sales might have been better and that product might not have been cancelled.
RIM's PlayBook? Do I need to continue to harp on why this product should never have been released the way it was? No? Good.
But while the TouchPad and PlayBook are prime examples of botched QA at product launch, they weren't the only ones. Virtually every Android tablet and smartphone that launched this year has suffered as a result of crappy QA by the OEMs and the carriers.
In the case of Android I have to lay most of the blame of that OS's overall stability problems pretty much on Google. The OEMs and carriers only had so much to work with, and then they had to put their value add on top of an unstable foundation, which in this case was the first release of Honeycomb.
Pretty much every Honeycomb 3.0 tablet that was launched in 2011 was an unmitigated disaster in terms of overall stability, and they didn't really get better until 3.1 and 3.2 came out later in the year.
This resulted in fairly high return rates for Android tablets, this despite the fact that from an overall hardware standpoint, they were pretty nice devices.
Virtually all of these tablets are still awaiting major updates, in the form of Android Ice Cream Sandwich 4.x.
Honeycomb may be the poster boy for the lousy reputation Android tablets had in 2011, but even products that used the "Stable" build of Android had issues. The Amazon Kindle Fire, which uses Android 2.3.x, was shipped with a bunch of known performance issues.
To give Amazon credit, these were addressed only a few weeks after launch with an update that was released this week. The update effectively has cleared up all of the known issues. But still, all of us who bought Kindle Fires were turned into unwilling beta testers.
Smartphones. Oh the smartphones. There's far to many issues with these things to list in a single column, but I'll hone in on the three major manufacturers that are really dropping the ball on quality control -- Motorola, Samsung and Apple.
In the case of Motorola, I was one of the many unfortunate people that bought a Verizon Droid Bionic the week of its release. Now, overall I think the Bionic is a nice piece of hardware, and when it works properly, it's a wonderful thing.
The problem is that at launch, it had a ton of of data communications issues, particularly with reception of LTE and 3G signal. If you check the Motorola support forums, you'll see massive amounts of complaints about this phone.
Most of this can be attributed to the fact that the LTE code and firmware in Android devices is still beta quality. Verizon and Motorola has sent out an over the air update for the Bionic in the last week that addresses some, but not all of the connectivity issues.
Ice Cream Sandwich is supposed to be a catch-all for a lot of the issues that current generation Android phones are experiencing, although even on my Samsung Galaxy Nexus which uses Android 4.0, I'm having a lot of the same data connectivity issues.
And on the Nexus I also have to contend with random reboots and other quirkiness that you can expect from any .0 software release.
All of this is supposed to be fixed with yet again Android 4.0.3 -- if you're one of the lucky few that actually has a phone that is targeted for this software upgrade. Thanks for making me an unwilling beta tester, yet again.
And Apple? Okay, the company is doing a better job than most of the others, but the whole "batterygate" thing with the iPhone 4S could have been addressed during the product's development cycle. As could have the various Wi-Fi and cellular reception-oriented issues which also were endemic to iOS-based products which received iOS 5 updates.
I have to wonder if Steve Jobs' illness which led to his eventual passing this year caused Apple's "ship it when it is ready" ethos to suffer, since he couldn't always be on top of everything. Let's hope that the company will recover quickly from its loss and instill better quality control in 2012.
Who else dropped the ball on quality control in 2011? Talk Back and Let Me Know.