Apple's solution to reports of antenna problems in the iPhone 4 is to complain about criticism and offer free bumper cases, a decision that won't delay this month's scheduled launches in 17 countries.
Apple held a rare snap press conference at its Cupertino
headquarters today to denounce the rumors of reception problems with the iPhone
4. But instead of announcing a mass recall, or a change in device design, the
only meaningful thing that came out of the presentation by Apple chairman and
CEO Steve Jobs was the announcement that the company would offer its $29.99
silicone cases for free to any iPhone 4 customer, through September 30. That's
sort of like an automaker responding to complaints about a stalling engine by
offering free oil changes for the next year.
Apple's iPhone 4 has been plagued by glitches ever since its
release on June 24. Some devices from the very first shipments had a yellow
tint to their screens; Apple said that the glue hadn't set, and the tint would
fade away with a little more time. A few days later, reports of reception
problems surfaced, and Jobs' response to a complaint he received by e-mail was:
"You're holding it wrong."
Then, corporate users started reporting problems with iOS 4
devices overloading Microsoft Exchange servers -not limited to the iPhone 4, but including 3G or
3GS devices that had been upgraded to the new OS - the answer was to push out
an patch to the Active Sync profile that increased the interval between
connections. Then Apple confessed that it was using an algorithm in the iPhone
software that incorrectly calculated the appearance of the signal strength
indicator, which could display five full bars in a situation where two or three
would be more accurate.
Apple's response today was a mocking of the fanboy community
(which was richly deserved), a lot of statistics and obfuscation, and
a small concession in the form of free Apple-brand bumpers. That
going to apply worldwide, which makes sense given Apple's unchanged
releasing the iPhone 4 to another 17 countries at the end of this
month. Apple may extend the offer beyond September, but Jobs would not
explain what would trigger such a decision.
As a child of Detroit's auto industry, I'm tempted to draw a
parallel between Apple's tribulations with the iPhone 4and some of the more
spectacular problems that AMC, Chrysler, Ford and GM created for themselves.
The question is: what metaphor works? The iPhone 4 isn't an Edsel; people are
going to keep on buying these things, because they're iPhones. It isn't a
Pinto; I have yet to hear of any devices bursting into flames upon sudden
impact. No, what we have here are General Motors' X-body front-wheel drive cars
of the early 1980s; whether the iPhone 4 is a Chevrolet Citation, Pontiac
Phoenix, an Oldsmobile Omega, or a Buick Skylark is a distinction without a
Those GM products had a poor reputation for quality and a
number of recalls; they're number 2 on Popular Mechanics' list of "10 cars that
damaged GM's reputation." I know that going back thirty years is dating myself,
but those cars marked a nadir of sorts for GM's public image, which had already
taken hits from reports of a faulty suspension design for the Chevy Corvair,
and documented problems with its early cast aluminum engine blocks. Arguably,
the company made more mistakes in the next quarter-century that had a more
direct impact on its bottom line, but after the failure of an entire design
family, the writing was on the wall for GM.
Apple seems to have the same mindset as GM toward complaints
about product quality from the press and the user base; both companies prefer
that we shut up and buy more stuff. Apple created a problem for itself by using
an algorithm for calculating the display of the signal strength that turned out
to be flawed and misleading, showing a much better signal than actually
existed. But Apple does owe the press and the user community some thanks, if
only for forcing the company to take a closer look at that algorithm; without
the barrage of criticism, we'd still be seeing five bars in some places instead
By putting the antenna on the outside frame of the iPhone 4,
Apple set itself up for more trouble; although every smartphone has to contend
with the problem of interference from the human body, very few (if any) manufacturers
insist on having a direct interface between the antenna and the meatware, as
the iPhone does. Apple's tacitly admitting that there's a problem with this
design, with its bumper giveaway.
But does that antenna problem mean the iPhone is a terrible
device? Probably not; although I have yet to put one through the proverbial
wringer, I suspect that I'll like it as much as its early adopters seem to. Is
the antenna problem a disaster for Apple? Not really; I'm sure the company
won't make nearly as much money from accessory sales as it had projected,
because having to give away a piece of silicone that might cost the company $1
to manufacture and distribute (but which sells for $29.99) is clearly going to
foul up the forecasts.
No, what this experience should teach Apple is that multimillion-dollar
anechoic chambers are nice, but field testing is all-important. Even if an
engineering flunky takes a prototype in a beer garden and fails to bring it
back, there's just no substitute for real-world experience. Preferably without
a rubber disguise that hides a potential problem.