I was both excited and concerned when Nokia launched the N900 mobile computer last year. Excited because it meant the slow-developing product line was continuing… but concerned due to past problems with reverse logistics involving the N900’s predecessors.
It’s starting to look like the concerns were justified.
By far the most popular article on this blog has been the one describing my experience with a microUSB failure on a pre-production device. That bothers me. For one thing I’d rather see that sort of attention on the pieces oriented around best practice and technological exploration. But that growing popularity also indicates a growing number of failures– not just on the devices themselves, but in Nokia’s handling of the cases.
Before I get deeper into the current situation, a little background and history:
Nokia Customer Response
My last role with Nokia was in the organization called DSNM, or Demand-Supply Network Management. Specifically, I managed a claims-handling application for global reverse logistics, in support of trade customers like Verizon, Orange, T-Mobile, et al. Nokia took this activity very seriously– failing to please trade customers meant possibly losing the end users buying their services.
Nokia CARE is a different organization within the company, targeting people who buy direct from the company and/or through retail channels. In some regions this service is largely outsourced.
I got involved with the Nokia N800 as a product quality engineer a few months before its launch at CES 2007. As I developed testing protocols, I realized we faced a big issue. Cell phones were tracked in quality systems by industry-standard indentification codes such as IMEI, MEID, etc. Lacking a cellular radio, the N800 was identified by its WLAN number, something so new that the device wound up being invisible to tracking and reporting systems.
This problem propagated all the way down to CARE, where confused claims handlers found themselves unable to identify the new product, much less enter any sort of key identifier for tracking. They had obviously not been properly trained to understand just what this new product was. Equally frustrated users complained that CARE representatives insisted the N800 had to be a phone and persistently requested identification numbers that were not there.
The Current Breakdown
As I reported in the aforementioned article, microUSB connectors have been coming loose from new N900s. I had originally hoped that my case was extreme, since there had been unusual stress placed on the connector in an accident. There was also a statement from Nokia that the problem had been corrected for production devices.
But more and more users began reporting the same issue, in production product, often occurring with no unusual stress at all. My analysis showed that when these tiny connectors fail, they don’t just dislodge from the printed circuit board copper lands but the lands themselves catastrophically peel off of the PCB surface!
Many users have mentioned an unusually tight fit between male microUSB connectors (including those provided by Nokia) and the N900’s onboard female connector. I can confirm that the fit can be so tight it is a struggle to insert and remove.
As I noted before, the root issue here is a poor design decision. A surface mount connector is the wrong way to go here. This connector should be changed to a through-hole design as soon as possible. That change alone will solve this. Other reinforcement measures will likely just forestall future failures.
As for CARE in general, the Google search nokia care customer unhappy OR poor OR dissatisfied produces over 2 million results, the top ones recent. Nokia executives would be well-served to start reading through those complaints.
Individual customers lack the clout of large trade customers and often find themselves fighting lonely battles against a corporation dumb and blind to the actual issue. But if an issue explodes, class action lawsuits can organically grow and pull in otherwise scattered individuals.
Given the interference fit between the N900’s connector and typical male connectors, combined with the ease at which the onboard microUSB connector pulls free of the PCB surface, the claims by some Nokia CARE representatives that the failures are due to user abuse are disingenuous. Failures are due to a poor component selection, and this is not any user’s fault. Every one of these incidents should be covered under warranty.
There’s a common perception that when individuals encounter a problem receiving decent service that this is a reflection on the entire company. On a personal and even profit-oriented level this is rarely true; no company can survive long if they truly don’t care to provide consistently acceptable service levels.
But my experience with the N800 showed that CARE employees and especially contractors can be disconnected from the new device introduction process. Not only might they be inadequately trained, but necessary systems upgrades can be overlooked. We could easily say that this is a consequence of a monolithic corporation and its bureaucracy but there’s ultimately no excuse for allowing such gaps to persist. They damage an otherwise respectable company’s reputation.
As Nokia struggles to reinvent itself, gain new mind and market share around the world and regain it in regions like the United States, it can ill afford to allow anything like the current N900 failures to get in the way. Nokia must cut through its own red tape and start handling these cases quickly, properly and completely. No more inconsistent approaches, no more customer rebuffs. Repair broken N900s at no cost to the consumer, and get serious about correcting root cause ASAP.
I know that those in the company close to the products want it that way.