Most people lucky enough to snag an Apple iPhone probably will be quick to show it off to friends. Not Balsu Thandu. He got an iPhone more than two months ago and has been hiding it from prying eyes ever since.
Thandu is one of about 200 field technicians who have been secretly testing the iPhone and looking for technical glitches for more than 10 weeks and counting. AT&T routinely tests new devices, but the iPhone has been different, Thandu says. The technicians have logged more than 10,000 hours on the phone, including more than 5,000 hours of voice calls and near 5 gigabytes of data usage. Most phones, he says, get about half that much test time.
AT&T's scrutiny is understandable. The iPhone is shaping up to be the must-have cellphone of the year, maybe the decade if it follows in iPod's footsteps. AT&T has exclusive U.S. distribution rights for five years and hopes to use the device to lure new customers.
To win at that, however, the iPhone must live up to its hype. That's where Thandu and his crew come into play. "My job is to make sure the devices we sell meet the high bars we set for them, in terms of technical requirements and test specifications," he says.
Doing dry runs with the world's most anticipated cellphone has been challenging. Tests had to be done in places frequented by wireless users. Under strict orders to keep the phone under wraps, technicians had to hide or disguise the phone when in public, Thandu says.
The disguises took many forms: an iPod "sock" was sometimes slipped over the iPhone. Other times, he says, testers kept the device inside a newspaper or pants pocket and used a wireless headset.
For the actual testing, technicians frequented all the places where consumers go: office buildings, subway platforms, stairwells, elevators, crowded bars, sprawling suburban malls and congested city streets. They also showed up incognito at Apple and AT&T stores.
To test iPhone's durability, Thandu says, they doused it with water, dropped it on concrete and bounced it off sidewalks.
Thandu says he took the iPhone with him on long runs, sweating all over it. "We wanted to test the limits of it."
Techs also did a lot of walking. "Many people don't realize it, but walking gives you the worst channel conditions," Thandu says. Cell signals tend to bounce off buildings, causing interference, and background noise is a constant problem in cities.
Feedback from the field was relayed to Apple, sometimes hourly, Thandu says. Early on, he says, technicians discovered that the iPhone's audio was "not loud or clear enough." Apple designers quickly fixed the problem, he says.
Though "iTesting" will continue on an ongoing basis, Thandu says he is comfortable that the device is good to go. "For the launch, I think we are there."