by Tom Kaneshige

A Shakespearean iPhone Tragedy of Epic Proportions

Jun 01, 2010
MobileSmall and Medium Business

For never was a story of more woe than this sad tale of an iPhone and a washing machine of H2O.

Players: Me, Old Man, Brother, Saleswoman

Act One: Washed Up and Ruined

It’s Memorial Day weekend, and we’ve gathered at the old folk’s home in sunny Walnut Creek, Calif., about 20 miles east of San Francisco. Three days of bliss, or so I thought.

I’m sitting in the backyard patio listening to the soothing voice of the late Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole in his rendition of Wonderful World, while smoking an apple-bowl pipe with sweet smelling tobacco.

Suddenly, the Old Man comes outside and says the saddest, nastiest, most dastardly words ever told to an iPhone owner.

Old Man: “Um, Tom, your iPhone was in the washing machine.” (That’s right, I still occasionally do my laundry at my parents’ house. So what?)

Me: “What?”

Old Man: “I heard something banging around…”

Me: “What did you say?”

Old Man: “The grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart, and bids it break.” (Okay, he didn’t really quote Shakespeare’s Macbeth; I just don’t remember what he said.)

Apparently not interested in listening to Wonderful World, the Old Man exits the stage and I’m left to figure out exactly what happened. Then it all comes crashing down. The iPhone and all my pretty apps have been destroyed in one fell whirl of the washing machine.

I lean back in my chair and utter the lonely words, “My Precious.”

Act Two: Got Rice?

A flurry of cussing follows, which can’t be quoted here. Chaos and finger-pointing ensue. Blame is quickly dealt to the appropriate parties. I’ll have to buy a new iPhone. Is the Apple Store open on Memorial Day? How much is it going to cost?

Then my older brother, a NASA engineer, enters bearing false promises.

Brother: “I just researched this on the Internet. I know how we can save it. People have done it—with rice, Tom.”


Me (after a long pause with an incredulous expression, as if to say, “How much does NASA pay you?”): “I guess you didn’t read my story about water being the death knell of the iPhone.”

For those of you too lazy to click on the link and give me a page view, here’s the important part:

One reader wrote to me that Apple refused to fix her broken iPhone because the Apple technician saw a red line on the base of the phone where the charger attaches. “It’s some kind of liquid submersion indicator,” she says, adding that her new iPhone was never exposed to water, rain or humidity. “They insisted I must have somehow submerged the iPhone in water, voiding all warranties.”

When an iPhone gets caught up in the washing machine, you’ll probably have to kiss it goodbye. “This all-too-common cause has a high mortality rate due to the thorough and prolonged penetration of the water,” says Aaron Vronko, CEO of Rapid Repair, an iPod and iPhone repair shop.

But my brother insists.

Using a tiny screw driver, he removes two screws at the base of the damaged iPhone. He gets a cheap suction cup from his car (the kind used to hold up a sign like “Baby on Board”) and removes the iPhone glass. I have to admit, I was surprised at how easy the iPhone could be taken apart.

He then places the iPhone pieces into a bowl of uncooked rice, which he says will pull out the water. We leave it overnight—a restless night for me.

In the morning, the iPhone is bone dry, the rice having done its job. I put it back together and send a charge through it. Nothing happens. I take it apart again. One half of the iPhone starts playing a song (no, not Wonderful World). After repeating the process a few times, I chalk it up to a lost cause and, sadly, make my way to the Apple Store.

Act Three: Down the Drain

The young saleswoman at the Apple Store shows no signs of sympathy. I get the feeling she’s rushing me through the process. It could be because I brought in my mangled iPhone to show her, as well as unintentionally to potential customers. It’s the dirty little secret of the iPhone that Apple doesn’t want you to see.

A 32 GB iPhone 3GS costs $300 with a two-year contract with AT&T. But I won’t get that deal because AT&T subsidizes part of the phone and I’m still under contract. Since I’ve been with AT&T for more than a year, though, I won’t have to pay the full price. My iPhone replacement costs $500 plus $63 for tax, and I’ve got to tack on another year on my remaining one-year contract.

As the saleswoman processes my card, I strike up a conversation.

Me: “Is there any plan that covers water damage?”

She shakes her head.

Me: “Will the iPhone 4G coming out this summer really have a video chat camera?”

Saleswoman (looking at me suspiciously): “I don’t know anything about that.”

Me: “Can you get rid of my busted iPhone?”

Saleswoman: “Sorry, we don’t have a way of recycling them here. Goodbye.”

I remember the first time I got my iPhone. Smiling Apple salespeople congratulated me and shook my hand. I felt like a new parent ready to embark on a grand adventure with the greatest little mobile device in the world. This time, though, I felt like my iPhone and I were damaged goods.


It took a few hours to restore my new iPhone from backup, as well as download all the apps and data during the first time I synced on iTunes. I had backed up my old iPhone less than a week ago. Still, I was pleasantly surprised at how seamless the process was. My new iPhone was just like my old one, except for a few minor tweaks, such as having to re-enter Wi-Fi pass codes.

With my new iPhone, I began to notice all the liquid hazards—sodas, coffee, rain, poolside splashes, washing machines—that could spell the end for the iPhone. They are everywhere.

I decided to find out if my problem was common. I contacted AT&T public relations and asked what percentage of iPhone customers replace their iPhones within the two-year contract, as well as how this percentage compares with the BlackBerry and Droid.

At first, AT&T referred me to Apple, which has yet to respond to one of my media inquiries. I pressed AT&T for answers and finally received this short response: “We really can’t provide, since we’re not the manufacturer.”

My bet is that the iPhone is pretty darn temperamental, especially after seeing the insides of a broken one. And so I’ve become paranoid. I’m worried that if I keep my iPhone in my pants pocket, then one day it will end up in the dreaded washing machine. I’m even thinking about buying a Pelican iPhone case that keeps out water.

For now, I stow my iPhone in my backpack where water can’t get to it easily. That is, I won’t have it lying around or in my pocket anymore. There’s only one problem: I can’t hear it ring.

Tom Kaneshige is a senior writer for in Silicon Valley. Send him an email at Or follow him on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline.