A study of new mobile phones from an online warranty supplier has suggested that Apple's iPhone has substantially fewer failures than handsets from BlackBerry and Palm.

San Francisco-based SquareTrade sells extended warranties for electronic goods in the United States. At the weekend, it published a report that looked at the failure rates from more than 15,000 new phones within 12 months of ownership.

After the first year of handset use, it found a 5.6 percent malfunction rate reported on the iPhone, which was "significantly lower" than malfunction rate of 11.9 percent for BlackBerry handsets. Palm Treo users suffered the worst, with a malfunction rate of 16.2 percent.

SquareTrade says it measured the failure rates at the one year mark mostly because the iPhone was less than 15 months old when the study was conducted. Also, the secondary reason was that the one year mark is traditionally when the manufacturer warranty expires.

On that basis, it projects "the iPhone will have few malfunctions over the 2 year minimum lifetime of a phone" (the length of most mobile carrier contracts in the US). It projects a failure rate of 11.3 percent for the iPhone over two years, whereas it recorded 14.3 percent for the BlackBerry, and 21 percent for the Treo.

The research also rubbished concerns over the limited battery life of the iPhone, as fewer than 0.5 percent of iPhone users reported a battery problem in the first year. Roughly 1 percent of BlackBerry and Treo handsets reported battery issues during the same period.

But the iPhone does have a weakness it seems, namely its touch screen, with one third (32 percent) of all reported iPhone problems were screen related. The majority of these screen problems were "dead spots", found on some screens.

SquareTrade also examined the cause of accidental damage to the iPhone and found that users found the iPhone quite slippery to hold, making the iPhone the more accident prone than any other handset. The BlackBerry meanwhile seems to have fewer software faults than the other two handsets.

SquareTrade says it examined customer data on 15,000 phones over the last two years. Apparently, it randomly selected 6,678 BlackBerry, 5,651 Treo, and 4,902 iPhone handsets covered by SquareTrade Care Plans between October 2006 and October 2008.

It included all handsets marketed under the iPhone, Treo, and BlackBerry names and purchased brand new. Only malfunctions reported directly to SquareTrade were included in the data. The company also insists it does not have affiliation with any handset manufacturers cited in this study.

Back in August Gartner cautioned that the iPhone only had a narrow set of uses within the large enterprise. However last week market researcher Canalys suggested that Apple's iPhone 3G had passed RIM's BlackBerry to take second place in third-quarter global smartphone rankings (behind Nokia).

RIM has responded aggressively to the iPhone with a number of new and attractive handsets such as the BlackBerry Storm and the BlackBerry Bold designed to shore up its enterprise market share.

RIM did not respond to Techworld at the time of writing.