My Take on Apple’s ‘Antennagate’

Free cases for everyone! Now shut up.

This is Apple’s solution to their iPhone 4 antenna issue (which isn’t an issue, according to them). In case you’ve been completely isolated from the news for the past 3 weeks, you’re aware that the iPhone 4 that Apple launched to such fanfare has been reported as having some issues with reception. Well, yesterday Apple had a press conference to discuss the reports, and what they’ve “found”.

First, a little history: hours after the iPhone 4 went on sale, reports started surfacing on the Internet that if you held the phone a certain way, the signal would drop dramatically, and possibly cause dropped calls or lose data connection. Steve Jobs’ response: “just avoid holding it in that way”. Okay, it’s dismissive, and glib, but we can think “maybe it was late at night, and he had knocked back a few beers when responding”. However, Apple eventually came out with a statement that said much the same thing. Here’s Apple’s official response:

“Gripping any mobile phone will result in some attenuation of its antenna performance, with certain places being worse than others depending on the placement of the antennas. This is a fact of life for every wireless phone. If you ever experience this on your iPhone 4, avoid gripping it in the lower left corner in a way that covers both sides of the black strip in the metal band, or simply use one of many available cases.”

That’s Strike 1 for Apple.

The reports of problems continued, indicating further issues with the iPhone 4, such as problems with the proximity sensor, and issues with bluetooth headsets. As reports grew and grew, media outlets all over picked up the story, until it was on major sites and stations such as CNN and MSNBC. Clearly, this was a growing issue that needed to be addressed. So Apple finally responded with another statement:

“Upon investigation, we were stunned to find that the formula we use to calculate how many bars of signal strength to display is totally wrong. Our formula, in many instances, mistakenly displays 2 more bars than it should for a given signal strength. For example, we sometimes display 4 bars when we should be displaying as few as 2 bars. Users observing a drop of several bars when they grip their iPhone in a certain way are most likely in an area with very weak signal strength, but they don’t know it because we are erroneously displaying 4 or 5 bars. Their big drop in bars is because their high bars were never real in the first place.”

That’s Strike 2. Simply displaying that someone has lower bars than they thought isn’t going to resolve the issue with the phone losing signal when held in a specific spot. Apple must have thought this was going to appease people, and resolve the issue, but things only continued to grow worse.

Consumer Reports finally made the biggest impact and forced the issue when they changed their review of the iPhone to “cannot recommend,” due to the antenna design issues. Once this hit, late-night talk shows started discussing it, with David Letterman running a Top 10 list about it. At last, the problem had reached critical mass, and Apple called a Press Conference to talk about it.

Now it should be said that I do not own the iPhone 4. In fact, I’ve never even seen one in person–yet. Therefore, my experience with the situation is entirely based on media reports, my experience as an Apple customer, and my knowledge of the technology industry as a whole. I own the iPhone 3GS and have generally been pleased by it. I had not had significant problems with dropped calls until I moved to my current home, where it seems I can’t hold a conversation for more than 5 minutes without the call dropping. Before, I had chalked it up to AT&T’s network, however, now I have to wonder if it’s not a problem with the phone itself.

Leading into Apple’s press conference, we’re left with the following facts:

  • When touched in a certain location, the iPhone 4 drops a significant amount of signal strength. The issue has been documented and reproduced throughout the media.
  • The iPhone 4 has documented and reproducible issues with the proximity sensor.
  • The iPhone 4 has documented and reproducible issues with bluetooth headsets.

Up to now, Apple’s responses have gone like this:

  • You’re holding it wrong.
  • All cell phones have this issue. Put a case on it, or hold it differently.
  • No, we’re not going to give you a free case (based on their internal AppleCare instructions)
  • Oops, turns out you don’t have signal anyway, we just show the wrong number of bars.
  • That wasn’t Steve that said to hold it differently. Don’t believe the emails coming from him.
  • An engineer of ours said he saw this coming? Doesn’t matter, you can’t prove it.

So Apple held a press conference, where a clearly annoyed Steve Jobs tried defending Apple to the media. Poorly, I might add. “We’re not perfect,” he said. Despite saying these words, no apology was given for the defective design, which is causing these problems. Instead, Jobs pulled out some statistics that could be perceived in any number of ways.

  • 0.55 % call-in rate to AppleCare about signal issues.
    Seriously, how many people even bother calling tech support anymore? Besides, with all the media reports, people figured “why bother”?
  • 1.7% return rate.
    Most Apple customers are pretty fanatical about them. It’s become a cultural status mark to own an iPhone. It’s not so much about function as it is form. This is likely preventing people from returning them.
  • Less than 1 additional call dropped per 100 over the iPhone 3GS.
    Okay, so Steve admitted that the iPhone 4 drops more calls than the 3GS. If the antenna design is so much more advanced, shouldn’t it be significantly less? This alone speaks to the issue, and proves that it’s more widespread than Apple believes.

Steve Jobs then went on to show phones from other makers experiencing similar issues as the iPhone 4, stating that every single company was facing the same issues. I’ll give him credit here, he’s correct; cell phones lose signal when dropped, if held in certain areas. The only problem is that most phones’ weak points aren’t where they’re naturally going to be held during use. But come on, Apple? You’re really going to try saying “See, we’re not the only ones?” You’ve always touted yourselves as so much better than everyone else (you certainly price your products that way), but now you’re going to tell us that you are just as bad as everyone else? I’m not buying it. Apple’s attitude in this press conference comes across as unsympathetic, defensive, arrogant, and insincere. Fine, you want a free case? we’ll give you one. Will that stop your bitching now?

During the press conference, Steve Jobs stated that Apple has been “working our butts off”. Yet during the Q&A afterwards, he said that he was on vacation in Hawaii earlier in the week. Sounds like someone wasn’t working very hard. Maybe that’s why Steve was so annoyed at the conference, having to come home from his ‘vacation’ to attend to issues with the iPhone 4.

The most galling thing that happened during the press conference was when Steve Jobs made this comment:

“We tested it. We knew that if you gripped it in a certain way, the bars were going to go down a little bit, just like every smart phone. We didn’t think it’d be a big problem … Phones aren’t perfect.”

Well, Steve, it WAS a big deal, and now it’s costing Apple, not only in providing free cases for millions of iPhone 4 owners, but also in stock prices. Apple has seen considerable losses in its stock price since the reception issues with the phone started surfacing.

They discussed their $100 million testing environments and labs that they had developed for testing of the iPhone. Don’t they have any left-handed engineers? The end result is they developed a defective product, they know it, and they’re unwilling to admit their mistake, or fess up to working on a fix for it. Apple’s legendary design has publicly and dramatically failed them. It’s not the first time, either, but it’s certainly the most publicized failure. With this huge investment in facilities, this failure is completely unacceptable. Do they not have any left-handed engineers?

So even after Apple gives out all these free cases, Consumer Reports still can’t recommend the iPhone 4. So much for that, Steve.

Strike 3.

Conclusion

What Apple SHOULD have done was come out and said, “we made a mistake, and we’re working to fix it. We’ll do what it takes, and we’ll continue to update everyone on the status.” Instead, they simply shrugged off the reports of problems, acting as if there weren’t one at all.

Of course, if they DID admit to making a design error, and state that there was a fix coming, they would likely have a rash of returns, and wouldn’t sell a whole lot more until the newer design came out. Great marketing team, Apple, but you might want to invest in some PR people who know what they’re doing. This batch clearly doesn’t know how to do their job correctly.

All of these issues with the iPhone 4 make me wonder if it wasn’t rushed to market. Early reports indicated that Apple had a 3GS-esque update ready to go, in case the iPhone 4 wasn’t ready in time to be announced for this year. Gizmodo’s posting of a leaked iPhone prototype may have forced Apple’s hand, and forced them to release a product that wasn’t quite fully tested, or completed. Further evidence of this is the fact that some of the early iPhone 4 devices had yellowed screens, due to the fact that they were shipped from manufacturing to the end-user so fast that the materials hadn’t finished drying yet.

The only conclusions we can draw with this entire ‘Antennagate’ situation is that Apple doesn’t feel they’ve done anything wrong, won’t admit to failing their customers, and being annoyed that they even have to defend themselves or one of their products. We, as consumers, should believe Apple’s hocus pocus, and drink their magic kool-aid without question.

That’s my take on the whole situation, for what it’s worth.

Tagged as: