Earlier this month, I reported that the touchscreens of thousands upon thousands of iPhone 6 Plus devices are failing due to an engineering flaw. And while Apple the company has yet to publicly acknowledge that these phones are breaking under normal use, employees who work at Apple’s retail stores tell Motherboard that the company is well aware of the flaw and has left its in-store “geniuses” to be the bearer of bad news to customers.
Two Apple store employees, one current and one who recently quit, contacted Motherboard after we initially published our story about iPhone 6 Plus touchscreen problems. They both told me that they have been informed both explicitly by their supervisors and subtly by the company’s internal repair tracking system that so-called “touch disease” is a known issue.
I go into detail in my earlier story about what has caused iPhone 6 Plus touchscreens to stop working, but, essentially, an engineering flaw associated with “bendgate” allows the phone’s logic board to flex ever-so-slightly whenever the phone is pulled out of a pocket, or put into a case, or is dropped. After thousands of flexes, the phone’s two “Touch IC” chips become unseated from the logic board, causing the touchscreen to work intermittently or not at all. Often, the problem causes flickering grey bars to appear along the top of the device’s display. The flaw, which repair experts previously told Motherboard is due to a fundamental issue with the design of the iPhone 6 Plus, was fixed for the iPhone 6S.
"They told employees they knew about the problem, but in a sense they’ve left us out to dry and take the brunt of the abuse."
Apple’s in-store repair system uses an app called “Mobile Genius,” which requires geniuses to categorize each type of broken device that comes into a store. Phones with broken touchscreens, would be identified in a dropdown system as “Display -> Flickering/Flashing,” or a Multitouch issue, according to a former genius who quit the company earlier this summer. After selecting that option, “the system would immediately lock out any attempts for repair and, if the customer was out of warranty, would quote a $329 replacement cost,” the genius told me in an email.
(Motherboard is withholding the identity of the current and former employees we spoke with because all Apple employees sign a nondisclosure agreement when they begin working at the company.)
“Standard operating procedure was, at first, to replace the display,” he said. “Most units were under warranty, so there was no real problem for the customer. Soon after, this practice was banned within Mobile Genius and the only option we were left with was a full unit replacement—an in-system pop up told us to not even ATTEMPT a screen replacement. Right then it was obvious that Apple knew that there was a problem and, having eliminated the possibility of the display being the issue, they knew it was the logic board chipset.”
These are what the two IC Touch chips look like. Image: iFixit
“Apple engineers were keenly aware of this trending issue, as Apple was very anal about making sure repairs were categorized correctly,” he added. “Furthermore, Apple has an in-house newsletter called RetailMe that they used to disseminate information. We were specifically instructed via this portal to replace devices exhibiting symptoms of Touch Disease.”
Another current employee confirmed this account and told me his team was “informed it was a known issue.” He said that in his store, he regularly deals with customers who are angry that what seems like a simple screen issue will cost them $329 to get repaired.
“They told employees they knew about the problem, but in a sense they’ve left us out to dry and take the brunt of the abuse,” the current employee said, adding that he gets “low-key nervous about seeing an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus with any screen-related issue.”
Out-of-warranty iPhone 6 Pluses can be replaced for that $329 fee, but the employees I spoke with told me that sometimes if a device is newly out of warranty, it can be replaced for cheaper or for free. They told me that individual Apple store managers are allowed to override the cost at any time, but said that corporate headquarters keeps track of which stores are replacing phones for free: “They take note of how often you do these overrides, and sometimes we have conversations about trying to limit them,” the current employee told me.
"I’ve had to finesse my way through so many conversations and give people the runaround to try to keep them from getting mad at me"
Dozens of articles have been written about iPhone 6 Plus touchscreen issues, and independent repair professionals who deal with the issue say it is by far the most common problem associated with iPhone 6 Pluses. Those repair professionals are also adamant that touchscreen problems are showing up on phones that have not been mistreated, dropped, or bent.
There is currently a class-action lawsuit pending against Apple related to the issue, and more than 6,500 people have contacted the law firm that filed it. Still, Apple has said nothing publicly about so-called “touch disease,” which harms both the company’s customers and its employees. Apple did not respond to a request for comment to my original story or this one, including questions about the protocol detailed by the Apple employees Motherboard spoke to.
“It puts me in a bad mood, having to look someone in the eye and say that their phone is out of warranty and it’ll be $329 to replace it sucks,” the current employee told me. “Part of the reason I’m looking for a new job is because of this situation. I’ve had to finesse my way through so many conversations and give people the runaround to try to keep them from getting mad at me.”
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