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Advice to Apple, AT&T: Send us a text message

Image: Screenshot for iPhone "bug fix"
Apple isn't saying much about its 2.0.2 software update for the iPhone, other than that it's for "bug fixes" and should provide "improved communication with 3G networks." Since the new iPhone's release last month, some users have complained that the phone is not living up to the promise of faster Web access on AT&T's 3G, or third-generation wireless, network.Suzanne Choney

Word-of-mouth is often how dismal news spreads. But when you have more than 1 million people to whom the information needs to get to, worth-of-mouth doesn’t cut it. Web message boards don’t cut it. Not commenting doesn’t cut it.

And if the news involves iPhone problems, Apple and AT&T, wouldn’t a text message from those two companies to the million-plus users of the new iPhone make sense? It’s certainly easy enough for them to do. It’s not like they don’t know customers’ phone numbers.

That text message could say: “Hi, we’re Apple and AT&T. We know you knocked yourself out to buy the iPhone 3G or to upgrade your old iPhone to the new software. Right now, it’s not working so swell for some of you. We can’t (optional add: or don’t want to) say whether it’s the phone or the network or both.

“But we want you to be happy. So, we’ve got a fix available, a 2.0.2 software upgrade. You need to go to your computers, to the iTunes Store online and download this software for the phone. It should help it run better. Whether it will fix everything, we can’t say yet.”

OK. That’s too long for a text message. Send a shorter one — “Please download iPhone 2.0.2 software for improvements” — or send an e-mail.

Let those of us who have spent good money and time on this device and phone service know what is happening, rather than leave it up to the Web’s message boards and blogs, and tell us a) you recognize there’s a problem; b) you are trying to solve it, and c) there is action we can take.

The software update will show up when you sync your iPhone with your computer. But lots of iPhone users don't regularly do that. You can argue it’s the customer’s responsibility to regularly check for software updates. Fair enough. But the reality is, phone users aren’t in the habit of doing that — yet — in the same way they are for their computers.

3G speed, spotty reception concerns
It seems at least thousands of iPhone 3G users are finding the reception they’re getting has been spotty, that some are having dropped calls, and that the vaunted speed boost of 3G, third-generation wireless, for Web browsing and e-mail apparently is not working as well as it should.

Web message boards have been abuzz with these issues for a few weeks, but both Apple and AT&T were largely silent until late Tuesday, when Apple told the Associated Press about the 2.0.2 software update, saying it offers "improved communication with 3G networks," but revealing little else.

Last week, news reports said part of the problem could be from the phone’s chip, made by Infineon, a German company. An Infineon spokesman declined comment to a Reuters reporter, but did say that Infineon has provided 3G chipsets to other phone manufacturers and there have not been any snags.

Apple didn't comment on the chip report. AT&T Mobility, the exclusive carrier of the iPhone in the United States, said little other than it hadn’t received “a lot” of complaints about the speed or quality of its service.

On Monday, Apple released the software upgrade, dubbed only as "bug fixes." The word went out first on the Web, something you'd only learn by trolling iPhone-related Web sites or setting up a Google news alert for “iPhone fixes.”

Nope, sorry, not good enough. There has to be a better way to get the word out.

There are an estimated 6 million users in the United States of the original iPhone, which came out last year. AT&T gained another 1 million users in the first three days alone after the new iPhone went on sale.

Apple also is selling the phone in 21 other countries, and on Friday, the company launches the phone in 20 more.

The iPhone is big business. Apple wants to make it an even bigger business, and AT&T wouldn’t mind either, as it vies with Verizon Wireless to be the largest wireless provider in this country.

Odds are, this week’s "fix" isn’t the last to come for the iPhone. That’s OK. It’s a terrific device. It’s easy to use. But don’t make it hard for customers to figure out what they need to do in order to keep their phones up to snuff.

MobileMe: Better communication
Apple has done somewhat better on the customer relations front with its MobileMe program, which has suffered its own share of woes.

MobileMe, released the same day as the new iPhone, is Apple’s $99-a-year online service which stores e-mail, contacts, calendars and photos, and provides each user with 20 gigabytes of storage. One of MobileMe’s most appealing features is the ability to synch e-mails, calendar and contact information to multiple devices, including a user’s iPhone, iPod touch, Macs and PCs.

Last month, customers lost access to their e-mail for at least a day, some longer, because of problems with Apple’s servers. Some of that e-mail was not recoverable for 1 percent of customers.

On July 25, the company had the good sense to start letting people know what was going on through its Web site.

Another e-mail outage happened this month. As a way of making amends, on Monday Apple said it is giving every MobileMe customer a free 60-day subscription extension, in addition to the 30-day subscription extension the company issued last month when the first outage happened.

“We appreciate our subscribers' patience while we turn things around,” Apple said at its new MobileMe news site. “We are working very hard to make MobileMe a great service we can all be proud of.”

It’s a good sentiment, and the subscription extension is a good step toward soothing customers’ ire. Apple and AT&T may want to keep it in mind for the iPhone as the situation continues to unfold.

This week’s software update may not be the last, but let’s hope it’s the last time we have to learn about in a circuitous way.