Mobile Tech

Users Fume as Software Update Bricks Sprint EVO Phones

Less than a month after the release of the Sprint HTC EVO 4G, many of the smartphone’s users recently found their devices rendered completely inoperable. That’s because a firmware update released by Sprint this week seems to have gone badly awry for an unknown number of the customers who installed it.

For those customers, the firmware update has “bricked” their phones — a term not so affectionately used for phones that behave more like doorstops than multifunction communications devices. The screen is blank, the signal is gone, the phone is dead.

I Am Bricked, Hear Me Roar

Blogs and Web sites are buzzing with user experiences, replete with expletives and disappointment expressed by customers whose phones are anywhere from one day to a couple of weeks old. While Facebook user Becky Parker reported that her firmware update went without a hitch, noting that “now my EVO is FAAAAAAAAAST,” lots of posts to Sprint’s Facebook page are not so cheerful. Facebook user Bill Gagnon said of his failed update: “Now Radio Shack said my new phone will be arriving within 7-10 days. B.S.!!!”

As of this writing, Sprint’s official Twitter feed had no further word on the subject. The last tweet, from June 28 at 3:06 p.m., simply announced that the update is available. Sprint did not return calls in time for publication of this article.

However, a wide range of users have reported that Sprint’s customer service personnel are telling them to return their phones to the place of purchase. Doing that may not win the user any immediate satisfaction, though — the EVO is still in very short supply in many markets. In a comment to a ZDNet blog entry on the firmware update, EVO owner “gabato” said, “My EVO is totally bricked. None of the Sprint stores in my area have new ones to replace it with. I was offered a [refurbished] EVO but I refused it.”

Updates Without a Net

Some customers have described a situation in which they were offered the update twice by the over-the-air update process. The first installation went well, but the second caused the phone’s total shut-down. Others assert that only “rooted” phones were damaged by the update. A rooted phone, or a “jail-broken” one, is one that has been altered to remove its carrier- or manufacturer-proprietary settings to allow customizations not normally available.

However it happened, the incident points directly at a flaw inherent in delivering software updates directly to a mobile device, Carl Howe, director with the Yankee Group, told TechNewsWorld.

“Over the air updates leave the consumer doing updates without a net,” he explained. “If it doesn’t work, it can require the consumer to return a phone for service.” In fact, this is exactly what Sprint customers are reporting. Once bricked, their phones can no longer be patched via the cellular airwaves or even via WiFi.

By comparison, said Howe, the update process used for some other smartphones, such as Apple’s iPhone, provides a way for customers to restore a phone to its original settings. “While Apple’s requirement to use a computer and iTunes to update iPhones is a bit cumbersome,” he said, “it does have the advantage of leaving the consumer with a backup plan.”

All In the Timing

A backup plan may be exactly what Sprint needs, given that its EVO offering is a key entry in the heated battle among smartphone platforms. As an Android device, the EVO is positioned directly against not only popular BlackBerry devices and Palm smartphones, but also the iPhone itself.

In fact, such a stumble could be a significant problem in this competitive climate, according to Alex Spektor, an analyst with Strategy Analytics. “The EVO’s recent firmware troubles are a big risk for HTC,” Spektor told TechNewsworld. “The vendor is trying to build its brand name in the U.S., and well-publicized glitches on high-profile devices like the EVO 4G could negatively impact HTC’s reputation.”

The episode’s most ironic moment may have come from Sprint CEO Dan Hesse, who delivered a conference presentation on Tuesday touting the results of a recent Forrester Research survey. Sprint, he noted, made the biggest improvement in the “Customer Experience Index 2010 – Wireless Service Providers” survey, gaining 15 percentage points.

4 Comments

  • I bought my HTC Evo on launch day, June 4th from Best Buy. It was an upgrade from a 3-year old Samsung Instinct.

    From the get-go, I loved my phone. It’s processor speed, apps and camera are incredible. It was also the first Android phone I owned.

    My Evo functioned beautifully for 3 weeks, and I was loving using it everyday. Then, on Monday, when Sprint rolled out the update, it was pushed to my phone twice. The first time, it was pushed, I accepted the update, and was actually in the process of installing the update when I noticed in the status bar that another download had started. When my phone started power-cycling as part of the update, it made it through the first power cycle, and during the second it simply never came back on. Dead… kaput…

    Just to clear the air, my phone was unrooted and every app I had was from the Android market. My phone was brand new, and I didn’t want to risk bricking it by rooting it, so I didn’t muck around with it at all.

    I have to admit that I’m getting a little angry at all the people on the forums insisting that those of us who got our phones bricked, it’s somehow our fault through user error. I won’t disagree with you that anyone who had their phone rooted knew that they were opening themselves up to risk. But there were those of us who simply got the update pushed through twice and got our phones bricked…

    As it stands, it was a hassle to return my Evo back to Best Buy (although I was finally able to), but all of the outlets around my area are sold out completely with no clue when they’re going to be getting more units in. So, here I sit, Evo-less with my old phone reactivated for the meantime while I wait and see how long it will be until I get another HTC Evo.

    • I also Purchased my EVO the first day it was available.

      have not rooted my phone

      I have had no problems updating my EVO OTA

      I don’t know any body that as not rooted there phone that has had a problem.

      And yes people that root there phone know that thay stand a chance at bricking there phone.

  • With a lot of this sort of stuff they need to rethink the concept and do something, like having a small AM ount of non-volatile ROM on the chip as a sort of ‘boot loader’, if you had to, it could detect/be reset in a way that would give you a basic working state, which could then be used to re-flash the firmware, in cases where you really fowled the thing. The silly mess where you can’t redo such a thing, because the code to support doing it at all is part of the firmware you just trashed, seems, to me, to have some **major** drawbacks, to say the least…

  • I purchased my HTC EVO the day it was first available. I haven’t rooted my phone and had no problems installing the update mentioned in this article, over-the-air.

    Anyone who has experience rooting devices, whether it be a phone or other device, knows they are taking a risk in "bricking" the device.

    I would like to hear from folks who have installed the update, who don’t have a rooted phone, in which the update has bricked their phone.

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