For a device with “smart” in its name, a smartphone sure can help you do a lot of stupid things. Whether it’s racking up thousands of dollars in international roaming fees or encouraging dozens of eye rolls with your misrouted voice dialing — I’m looking at you, guy who calls Ben O’Lynn in accounting every time he means to call Bennigan’s for lunch — our modern-day mobile devices provide plenty of opportunities for tech-tinged embarrassment.
We tracked down seven of the most unfortunate smartphone disaster tales we could find. The stories are fun to laugh at now, but most of them were anything but amusing when they actually occurred. Some cost companies money; some cost employees their jobs. Others cost something even more difficult to recover: a slice of their victims’ dignity.
So read on, and remember: It could have just as easily been you. (Note: Some of the names have been changed or withheld to protect the guilty.)
Smartphone horror story No. 1: The accidental autocorrect
When you think about it, letting a gadget guess what you want to say is really just asking for trouble.
“Scott,” who works at a marketing and Web design firm, learned that the hard way. He was emailing back and forth with his brother, using some colorful language, when a message from a client came in to his phone.
The client’s project had a four-letter acronym that started with a “c.” It was just a letter or two off from a certain other four-letter “c” word — yes, that one — and as luck would have it, the more vulgar variation had made its way into the memory on Scott’s phone.
“My brother and I exchange some pretty insulting emails, and like all smartphones, my phone remembers what I type in,” he explains. “When I emailed the client back, it jumped in and swapped out the project’s real acronym with that other ‘c’ word.”
Scott fired off the email, not realizing it described his client’s project as the “C— project” (I’ll let you fill in the blanks). The client — who, naturally, happened to be especially conservative — was appalled. He wrote back within minutes to let Scott know.
“I was mortified. I couldn’t believe it went through that way,” Scott says. “The worst part was trying to explain away the fact that I had used that word enough to get it in the phone’s dictionary.”
The moral: Never blindly trust a machine. Proofread everything, especially messages tapped out in a hurry. Otherwise, you might just end up calling a client a … well, you know.
Smartphone horror story No. 2: There’s an app for what?!
Smartphone apps have revolutionized the world of mobile business. With the right set of programs, you can stay connected to your company, keep up with important news, and maintain close contact with colleagues. Of course, with the wrong set of programs, you can land yourself in some seriously hot water.
We’ve all heard of a coworker getting caught with, shall we say, inappropriate materials on his work PC. But finding naughty stuff on someone’s business-issued smartphone is still a relatively new phenomenon.
It certainly caught the folks at OneCall Manage off-guard. The agency works with corporations to analyze their workers’ cell phones and spot any potentially problematic areas.
During a routine checkup with a major national company, the OneCall consultants found something that stood out. It was a game being played on a company device — and it wasn’t Pac-Man. In fact, the game was called Sexy Cougar, and no, it wasn’t about mountain cats.
OneCall CEO Berylle Reynolds smiles when she thinks back on the discovery. It’s a sharp contrast to the frowns that formed when Sexy Cougar first came to her agency’s attention. “We had to go in and actually block all the phones to prevent the workers from downloading anything in the future,” she says.
Oh yeah — there’s one more twist: “It wasn’t just one person,” Reynolds reveals. “There were four employees who had downloaded the Sexy Cougar game in the same office.”
Hey, at least we know they weren’t using iPhones.
The moral: Remember the old adage “Don’t mix business with pleasure”? It applies just as much between a man and a smartphone as it does between a man and a woman. Don’t forget it.
Smartphone horror story No. 3: The literal smartphone launch
Everyone loves a good startup story. When your company’s history involves throwing expensive technology, however, sharing your roots can quickly turn dangerous. Just ask the guys from Mutual Mobile.
These days, Mutual Mobile is known for making apps focused on productivity — things like Sales Report and Polycom for the iPhone. But in the beginning, the team had a slightly different focus.
Mutual Mobile’s founders made their way into the mobile market by creating a little program called HangTime (Apple later removed it from the App Store). HangTime, if you’ve not heard of it, encouraged people to throw their precious iPhones into the air. The app measures how high the phones go and how long it takes for them to come back down. (Yes, really.)
Silly as it seems, HangTime showed the Mutual Mobile guys how lucrative a field that app development could be. They credit the creation with helping them expand their for-fun business into a full-time venture, and they frequently tell their clients the story. “It’s generally well-received,” says CEO John Arrow. “One time, it was too well-received.”
That might be an understatement. On the ill-fated occasion, Arrow and his colleagues were meeting with a new enterprise client. After having some laughs over their HangTime history, the client caught them off-guard by downloading the app to his own phone and giving it a whirl — right then and there, outside the Mutual Mobile offices.
“Before we knew it, our biggest client was throwing his iPhone in the air as high as he could,” Arrow recalls. Arrow watched nervously as his new client’s phone went up, up, and — yep, you guessed it — away. The device landed on the roof of the next building over.
“The worst part — when it landed, we heard a splash,” Arrow says.
Here’s hoping the poor chap at least had insurance.
The moral: When it comes to mobile technology, be careful what you suggest. You never know when your amusing anecdote might inspire a client to toss his phone onto the roof — literally or figuratively.
Smartphone horror story No. 4: The case of the disappearing data
For a mobile road warrior, the smartphone is an invaluable weapon. And when that weapon fails, all bets are off.
Tom McClintock knows the feeling. McClintock, a partner with marketing firm NSI Partners, was traveling to meet an important client when the unthinkable occurred: His smartphone, which contained all the files he needed for his meeting, stopped working.
“I’d passed through airport security, and suddenly, the phone died with no explanation,” McClintock says. “I realized I’d forgotten to pack my sync cable, too, so I couldn’t even connect it to my netbook to try to access the data that way.”
McClintock thought fast. He called his assistant and arranged to have her dash to the airport with the cable, figuring he’d find a way to download the files off his phone once he landed. But with the clock ticking and his flight rapidly approaching, things were looking iffier by the minute.
When McClintock’s assistant finally arrived, he didn’t have time to make it out of the terminal and back through security again. Amazingly, the airline — yes, those same people who scowl when you ask for a second bag of peanuts — offered to have an agent grab the cable and bring it to McClintock’s gate. He got it moments before his flight started boarding.
The moral: Never rely on a single source for important data, especially when traveling on business. Bring backups — or, better yet, store your files in the cloud — and you’ll never have to worry about crashing and burning midway through a journey again.
Smartphone horror story No. 5: The data dollar disaster
Talk may be cheap, but data sure isn’t — at least, not when your company uses capped plans and you shatter the limit.
Blake Bookstaff of CharterJets.com depends on his business’s BlackBerry to keep in touch wherever he roams. He’s no data hog, though: Bookstaff has only a certain amount of data he can transfer within his company’s plan. If he goes over that amount, each additional megabyte costs a pretty penny.
One month, Bookstaff noticed something strange on his smartphone: an icon indicating the device was sending and receiving data far more than it normally did. He didn’t think much of it and went about his day-to-day work. Weeks later, he got wind of the month’s total bill — and it practically knocked the wind out of him.
“The bill came in, and it was several hundred dollars more [than usual],” Bookstaff says. “Whatever was happening with my BlackBerry went way over my data usage allotment.”
Bookstaff figures his phone started syncing data at regular intervals — something he didn’t typically allow it to do. As he discovered, one tiny setting can lead to one massive charge on the corporate account.
The moral: Unless your limits are sky-high, keep close tabs on your data and minute usage throughout the month. Whether it’s a mistakenly toggled setting or some unexpected international-travel surcharge, it’s all too easy to stack up accidental fees and end up with a nasty surprise.
Smartphone horror story No. 6: The sleeping smartphone
Let’s face it: Corporate conference calls can be pretty damn dull. So maybe it shouldn’t come as a total shock that even our smartphones sometimes fall asleep midsession.
As the president of Wireless Communications Alliance, David T. Witkowski relies on his wireless phone for all of his communication needs. He regularly uses his Motorola Droid’s speakerphone to help an entire room take part in a conversation.
The problem: Occasionally, the Droid fails to wake up after its screen goes dark during a call. And because the phone doesn’t have a hard-wired button to end a call, this leaves Witkowski with no easy way to hang up.
“Normally I just wait until the other person drops off, which terminates the call and clears the problem,” he says.
One time, that work-around plan didn’t work so well. Witkowski was in the room with some clients, chatting with their customers via his Droid. His end of the conversation concluded, and the customers asked him to disconnect so that they could continue speaking privately on their own. Unfortunately, Witkowski’s phone had decided to take a little nap.
“So there I am, trying to hang up the call, and the customers are saying, ‘Are you still on the line?'” he remembers. “Very embarrassing, especially given that I’m the president of a 4,000-member wireless industry alliance. Of all people, I shouldn’t be struggling with my phone.”
The moral: No piece of technology is 100 percent dependable. Sometimes, a good old-fashioned landline — or, if all else fails, a call-ending sledgehammer — can go a long way.
Smartphone horror story No. 7: When a smartphone makes a splash
Our final smartphone horror story gives a whole new meaning to the idea of a dropped call.
Robert Van Gool is one busy dude. His company, Gonzo Games, strives to create viral video games for a range of different electronic platforms. There’s always work to be done, and Van Gool uses every minute he can to get ahead.
That means he’s frequently multitasking, and not in the way you might be thinking: Van Gool, you see, sometimes takes care of business while — er — taking care of business. You know, a very personal kind of business.
One day, Van Gool was chatting with his lead game developer from his secondary office, so to speak, when something went terribly wrong. “The phone slipped out of my hand and plopped into the toilet, big splash and all,” he confesses.
The porcelain gods were evidently watching out for Van Gool that day: His phone miraculously survived and even maintained its connection. His conversation, however, didn’t fare quite so well.
“I gingerly pulled it out and realized my developer was still on the line, still talking!” Van Gool says. “I had to hang up on him, as there was no way I was going to put that phone to my ear.”
The moral: Even in our culture of constant connection, some places should remain sacred from communication. Do the world a favor: When you enter the john, put down the damn phone. Your colleagues — and your fellow restroom users — will thank you.