Robert Burger recently paid $460 for a new Motorola cell phone with a wireless earpiece.
It didn't work. "I can't get it to recognize the earpiece," said Burger, an administrator in a Washington law firm who says he spends thousands of minutes on his cell phone every month. "And the battery isn't holding a good charge."
This year, 98.9 million cell phones will be distributed to customers in North America, according to research firm Instat/MDR. About 20 to 25 percent of them will run into problems within the first year, costing money and time for consumers like Burger, estimates Neil Strother, an Instat analyst.
In a world of balky gadgets, cell phones occupy an uncertain middle ground between the costly, indispensable items we fix when they break (computers if they're recent models) and those we throw away to buy replacements (VHS players, answering machines).
Many of today's cell phones come loaded with cameras, e-mail, schedulers, Web browsers, Bluetooth wireless capability, speakerphones, digital music players and video players. And all of those features mean there's more to go wrong.
The average life cycle of a phone is down, to 19.4 months this year from 25 months three years ago, thanks not only to phones that fail but also to customers who change providers or upgrade to the latest models, according to the Yankee Group, a research firm in Boston.
This year, replacement-phone sales are expected to reach 103 million -- costing consumers $4.8 billion -- or nearly double the 56.4 million sold three years ago, according to the research firm.
Replacing a broken or lost cell phone can be a pricey proposition because most carriers won't provide their advertised discounts of $100 or more unless customers commit to extending their contracts for a year or two. Customers who are early into a contract may not qualify for a discount at all.
Dionne Hamilton, a legal secretary in Silver Spring, is fed up with her LG 3100 phone, which she said is one of four in her family that drops calls or loses service altogether.
She brought it in for a software upgrade three months ago, but it's acting up again, she said. "It's not under warranty," which means she would have to pay between $100 and $200 to replace it with a similar new phone. "But I don't want to."
For most cell phone users, replacing a phone that's gone bad comes with an added cost in time and aggravation: pecking away at the keys of the new phone to reconstruct a mobile address book of often-used names and numbers. Verizon Wireless recently started offering a service to back up cellular address books for just such an emergency -- at a cost of $1.99 a month. Some advanced "smart phones," which sell for $400 to $600, can download schedules and address books directly from a computer.
Warranties on new phones typically last for a year but don't cover loss or physical damage. Carriers often offer insurance policies, at a cost of about $4 a month plus a deductible, but only about 10 percent of cell phone users buy such plans, according to J.D. Power and Associates.
The cost of fixing phones isn't just a nuisance for consumers; it's also a hassle for carriers, which typically spend hundreds of hours testing phones for durability in labs and field tests before releasing them to the public.
"As products got more complicated and expensive, we find it harder to educate the technicians and to get them the right tools to repair those devices," said Michael Cost, executive director of supply-chain management for Cingular, which became the nation's largest cellular carrier when it completed its merger with AT&T Wireless last week. In 2002, the average store carried eight to 10 models of phones. Now, with all the added features, a store carries between 25 and 30 models, Cost said.
Late last year, Cingular pulled technicians out of its 1,700 stores around the country and switched to an "exchange-by-mail" program. The company mails the customer a replacement phone that's been refurbished. The customer mails the broken one to Cingular, which repairs it and gives it to another customer needing an exchange. That approach saves time for customers and a "significant" amount of money for the company, which can fix the phones at a centralized site, Cost said.
Rival Verizon Wireless, which has no mail-exchange program, is hiring more in-store technicians because customers like having technicians available, spokesman John Johnson said.
Feature-packed smart phones, billed as pocket-size personal computers, are especially vulnerable to software bugs.
"As mobile phones become PC-like, they also suffer some of the same problems," said Gene Wang, chairman and chief executive of Bitfone Corp., a company that has designed a way to send software fixes over the air to a cell phone.
Despite all the new gadgetry, most cell phone breakage results from human error.
"I've seen a few flip phones break in half," said Howard Rosenberg, manager of a Simply Wireless store on Capitol Hill, who keeps some replacement parts in stock but generally refers customers to their carriers or third-party repair centers that specialize in fixing gadgets.
The antenna on an old model, the Motorola v60, broke frequently but was among the cheaper repairs, costing customers $35 if the device wasn't covered by a warranty, Rosenberg said. Often, liquid crystal screens go dead, or phones are dropped in water, like the customer's phone that shorted out after falling into the Potomac River.
"Flushing it in the toilet -- I've heard that many times," Rosenberg said. And, he added, "they go after it."
Not all complaints about broken phones turn out to be valid. Carriers say a quarter to a third of customers coming in with problems simply don't know how to use the phone or its features.
Dwain Gourdine, store manager of the Verizon Wireless store on G Street in downtown Washington, said 30 to 40 customers come in on an average day complaining of a problem that's the result of incorrect usage. Some are trying to make calls in basements or other areas where there is no coverage; others can't figure out the phone. "They're not just phones anymore. They've got so many products and tools built into them, so [users] need lots of education."
Many customers hate giving up their buggy or broken phones, even for a day.
"You're more reliant on technology, and when it goes down, you're dead," said Burger, the law firm administrator, who finally got his phone fixed by spending a lunch hour waiting for a technician's help at a Verizon Wireless store. Asked what he would do without his phone, Burger widened his eyes and said: "Cry."