Everyone agrees that the iPhone 4 was Apple’s best iPhone yet on the technology side—a fast, powerful pocket computer with a good cell phone and a great cell phone-caliber camera built in. But it’s also ridiculously fragile. One year after the device’s launch, four of the five iLounge editors who purchased iPhone 4s have had to replace them due to shattered glass. Last week, our publisher became the third, and yesterday, I became the fourth.

I previously wrote about the deterioration of my iPhone 3G, which felt as if it had been built by Apple to last roughly two years—just long enough to make it through AT&T’s cell phone contract—and was then in the process of failing bit by bit. And I went into my iPhone 4 purchase thinking that, despite Apple’s assurances that it was using magically strong glass for the device’s body, I could well be in for a repeat performance. Our review of the iPhone 4 was clear up front that “smudge, scratch, and shatter issues await users who avoid cases,” and discussed the “case-dependent body design” in detail. So I was warned. But even so, I didn’t expect the iPhone 4 would develop so many problems over the last year.

Yesterday, seemingly out of nowhere, my iPhone 4’s front screen cracked. This was preceded by problems with the Sleep/Wake Button, which has become increasingly unresponsive and mushy-feeling over time, and a “popping” noise that appears when playing audio via Dock Connecting accessories. In retrospect, I should have sought warranty service for the two aforementioned issues before the screen failed, but having moved from Central Florida to Southern Ohio, the nearest Apple Store is a two-hour trip away, making a potential replacement more of a hassle than it was worth… for moderate issues. A screen crack, however, is a different story.

This isn’t the first cracked iPhone 4 I’ve seen, though the stories are all a little different—some are seemingly more user-related than others. Less than a week after she received it, my wife dropped her iPhone 4, leaving a nasty gash in the rear glass cover, thankfully sparing the camera module. Other people I know have had similar issues after drops. The difference in my case is that I didn’t drop the phone. Mere minutes after using it for app testing, after which it had been resting on my desk, I slid the phone in my pocket and walked downstairs, only to pull it out and find this:

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Unfortunately, I’m not alone among iLounge’s editors in needing an iPhone 4 replacement. Only one of our iPhone 4-owning staff members has made it through a full year without a replacement; three others have needed to take their iPhones in one, two, and three times, respectively. Most of the replacements have involved out-of-pocket $29 charges for shattered back glass, which our editors have dealt with repeatedly despite the use of seemingly protective cases. The only editor who hasn’t had a problem—yet—is the one who primarily uses a rubber-lined CandyShell Flip case. Thin shells and thicker hard plastic-lined ones haven’t done much good against drops.

But my iPhone 4 hasn’t been dropped in a year. So was the crack in its screen just bad luck? Or a production problem that only rears its head after long-term use? I’m not sure. Apple initially seemed to write off the scratched faces of original iPod nanos as user problems, only to be held responsible for them later in a wide-ranging class action lawsuit. It’s unclear whether I’ll be asked to pay $199 for a screen replacement—Apple charges more to fix the iPhone 4’s front than its back—or whether a swap will be free of charge. If a class action suit winds up covering all of these glass problems, two more years may pass before users who were charged $29 to $199 for replacements will get some or all of their money back from Apple.

Today, all that’s clear is that I’ll be making a two-hour trip this weekend, and Genius Bar gods willing, I’ll be able to keep on using my iPhone 4 through the duration of my two-year contract. If not, I’ll be left hoping that Apple releases the iPhone 5 sooner rather than later. Maybe that’s what Apple was hoping for when it created this easy-to-break glass-bodied phone. But speaking as the latest beneficiary of its “highly recyclable” engineering, I strongly believe that a wholesale redesign of this enclosure is seriously overdue. This is a great phone trapped in an overly fragile body, and it’s time for Apple to bring the durability of its iPhone enclosures up to par with the sophistication of the components inside.

Readers, have you had any experiences with cracked or broken iPhone 4 glass? Share your experiences in the comments below.