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Antennagate - real drama or media beat-up?

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Have you heard? iPhone 4 has a reception issue when you hold the phone a certain way. This may not have been so much of a problem but Apple's response, starting with a few terse emails and some head-in-the-sand behaviour, fed a growing media frenzy that ended with Consumer Reports in the US retracting it's endorsement of the new device, despite it being ahead of every other smartphone in every other category in CR.

Since anecdotal evidence - from Auckland, from Sydney and from Canada - has shown the iPhone 4 hardly ever loses reception and doesn't actually drop calls, at least in the three instances I have heard about directly, not to mention it's hard to hold an iPhone in the so-called 'death grip' for any length of time. It's looking like Apple is the victim of its own success and perceived arrogance.

After years of saying Apple should fail, is failing and then is not doing as well as it should be, now it's perceived as the best target for everyone to have a crack at.

Which could be perceived as a backhanded way of saying 'Apple, you're amazing'. Which it is.

Finally, last Friday (Saturday, NZ time) Steve Jobs went live before the critics to state the case, from his viewpoint.

Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the presentation begins with the iPhone 4 Antenna Song, by Jonathan Mann, and after that Apple CEO Steve Jobs demonstrates reception issues on other smartphones in certain grips.

Unfortunately Apple's edited posting does not include the *'juicy' Q&A session, where Jobs has a go at the tech press for creating Antennagate.

(* 'Juicy' is Leander Kahney's description on Cult of Mac.)

Kahney detailed some of these exchanges on Cult of Mac.

In the Q&A, Jobs accused tech journalists of sensationalism. As Kahney notes, over the past three weeks, the iPhone 4's antenna issues have been an exceptional problem, and so tech journalists have covered it extensively.

To me, of course, it looks like the sensationalist elements of the press have seized upon tales of woe with an Apple device with quite unseemly abandon. But I am an avowed Apple devotee; I would say that. But it doesn't change the fact I have yet to see a reasoned evaluation of the whole phenomenon.

But none of this has helped Apple's share price.

Of course, on past performance, this could just mean it's a good time to get some Apple shares.

Apple has created a special page for showing similar 'death grip' issues on other smartphones.


That finger spot you can touch on your iPhone 4 also exists on other smartphones including those from Samsung, HTC, and Blackberry. As you'd imagine, those manufacturers have not been too impressed with Apple's finger-pointing, with Nokia responding that it puts an antenna in the top and bottom of its phones to deal with reception issues due to different phone holding styles.

It's interesting to see Jobs' dissertation just to see phones by Samsung, RIM and running Android suffering similar issues to the iPhone 4's reception drops, in different hand grips. And I have to agree with Jobs - I have never seen a big beat-up in the press about any of these.

Apple sold three million iPhone 4s in three weeks. It is insanely popular, with the highest customer satisfaction rating of any iPhone - and of any smartphone, ever, despite these so-called 'issues'. In AppleCare responses on this new iPhone, only 0.55 per cent of respondents have complained about reception. I wonder what the figure is for other smartphones? Return rates on iPhone 4s at Apple largest iPhone 4 reseller, compared to iPhone 3GS, are at less than a third of 3GS rates.

AT&T (Apple's cell carrier in the US) told Apple that on iPhone 4, compared to iPhone 3GS, drops calls at the rate of less than one additional call per hundred.

Which is a bit weird, considering when iPhone 4 first came out, some pundits called the antenna a work of genius and Apple seems very proud of it. Jobs' pet theory on this is that more iPhone 3GS users have their phones in cases. When iPhone 4 shipped, hardly any cases were available that fit it.

A case negates reception drops.

One has to wonder at Apple's pre-release testing procedures. Apple has been testing iPhone 4 out in the field, true - if it hadn't, the whole 'iPhone in a bar' Gizmodo incident, in which someone 'found' an iPhone 4 prototype in a bar and then tried to sell the story, wouldn't have happened.

This incident, and a subsequent iPhone 4 prototype turning up in Vietnam, of all places, would hardly make Apple feel confident about extensive field testing, but that's a situation for which Apple is culpable. What can Apple do? Build a private, real-world test city?

Well, Jobs also showcased the previously secret antenna testing laboratory at Apple, containing 17 anechoic chambers. The whole lab was built for over US$100 million dollars. It's staffed by 18 PHD scientists and engineers plus their staff. Jobs said (at around 13 minutes in): "The iPhone antenna went through all of this... 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 other smartphone. We didn't think it would be a problem because every smartphone has this issue. So phones aren't perfect and it's a challenge for the entire industry."

Another thing Apple has done is improve the accuracy of signal strength display on all iPhones in a software update through iTunes - this has two higher bars on the right of the five-bar readout.

In summary, I don't think Apple has handled this as well as it could have, at least as far as public perceptions go. But I think it's clear that Apple is making real efforts to improve and even resolve the problem, and every iPhone 4 owner will get a free Apple Bumper case until September 30th, which suggests Apple may have a revised model for sale by then.

But I don't think the current reception issue is much of an issue. At all. It's a storm in a teacup in real life, but a gathering hurricane in the public perception.

I don't think real Apple fans will shun the new phone. I still want one. I think the only people who will shun it are non Apple fans who always waver, and those who change devices often and don't mind figuring out other systems.

I wish I knew when it was on sale here, because I've been saving ...

- Mark Webster mac-nz.com

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