Will future iPhones rat you out?

Apple patent reveals "customer abuse detection system" technology for possible implementation in future iPhones

Remember that old saying the customer is always right? Well, in the future that saying might be "the customer is always right, unless their iPhone says otherwise." A patent filed by Apple has been uncovered for a "customer abuse detection system" that would allow technicians to tell if you've been too hard on Apple devices like your iPhone or iPod.

Possible instances of customer abuse could include immersing your device in liquid, exposing it to extreme temperatures, dropping it, or tampering with the device's internal circuitry. Although the patent didn't specifically mention it, I'm sure running over your iPhone with a motorcycle would also set off the abuse detection system.

Whenever abuse occurs, the detection system could store a digital recording of the event in the device's memory. Then, using diagnostic tools, technicians could find out how you've been treating your iPhone or iPod. If you've been too hard on your device, Apple could be in a position to argue your warranty is void, and that you are not eligible for a free repair or replacement.

Referring to the issue of inoperable devices being returned, the patent states, "it is not uncommon for consumers to receive replacement products or repair services on abused products not covered under the terms of a warranty. Such erroneous replacements or repairs may be costly to the vendor and/or manufacturer of the product." (Click on the image for a closer look at part of the patent application.)

The above quote doesn't come right out and say that Apple plans to use this invention to refuse device repairs or replacements, but it's hard to imagine what else an abuse detection system would be used for. A customer monitoring practice like this could be problematic, since there could be times where your device records an abuse event that may not be cause to void your warranty.

What happens, for example, if you are walking outside with your device in freezing temperatures, or leave the device in your car for a few minutes on a particularly cold day? Or if you happen to drop your iPhone in liquid but you are able to quickly dry it off before the device becomes adversely affected? Then a few weeks or months later, something else goes wrong with the machine. Would Apple start refusing repairs or replacements because of a past event that may not have caused the device to malfunction?

In my experience, Apple has always provided superb customer service, so I'd like to give them the company the benefit of the doubt here. It may be that Apple's abuse detection system may be used only in situations where there is a clear connection between a device's inoperability and past abuses. It's also possible this system may never make it into an Apple device at all. (And some insurance companies will extend Apple's warranty, although such policies have limitations.)

Either way, I'm not so sure it's a great idea for Apple to be essentially spying on its customers like this. Apple may save some money on repairs and replacements with an abuse detection system, but the company may regret the practice if it causes widespread customer frustration at the Genius Bar.

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Ian Paul

PC World (US online)
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