Admitting There Is a Problem Is More Difficult Than the Fix

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2010-07-12 Print this article Print


The iPhone 4's problem is simple. When your hand touches the metal on both sides of the plastic insulator on the lower corner of the iPhone 4, it changes the characteristics of the antenna. Exactly how it changes the antenna depends on how conductive your hand is. So if your hands are dry, the change might be less than if they're wet. But either way, there will be a change. Since a change will make the antenna less efficient, the quality of reception will drop. If you have a weak signal, you will likely lose your connection. 

None of this information is a mystery. Engineers have been designing antennas since Mahlon Loomis created the first crude radio during the American Civil War. Of course, Loomis didn't understand the concept of resonance that governs antenna design, but he made use of it. In other words, there's no excuse for engineers at Apple or anywhere else to miss the fact that exposed metal antenna elements on the edges of a phone would be touched by the user, and this would affect how the attached radios performed.  

There's also no reason the engineers at Apple couldn't have figured out that protecting their antenna with a thin layer of plastic would help prevent such problems. When I published my first antenna design in 1984, one of the key features was a layer of plastic to protect the elements. Even in those days this was no secret. Of course, the presence of the user's hand would still have had an effect on antenna performance, since there would be a capacitance change, but it would not have been nearly as significant as the change you get with a mid to high resistance short across the two elements.  

So why didn't Apple take a step so simple that it can be performed by a piece of duct tape? Perhaps their engineers didn't know any better, but my best guess is that it would have cost an extra few cents, and it would have made the iPhone 4 an extra millimeter wider. It might also have looked to Steve Jobs or whoever else was judging the device's coolness factor that it was less cool. But the difference is that it would have worked. 

So now, having made the mistake, Apple is blaming the users for holding the phone wrong. It's also saying that all handheld wireless phones are affected by being held, which they are, but not to nearly the extent as the iPhone 4.

This was an engineering goof, pure and simple. Apple's continued denial will accomplish a couple of things, such as hurting its reputation as a designer of quality products and making the lawyers putting together the several class-action suits richer. But what it won't do is treat Apple's customers fairly. That is the biggest mistake of all.

Wayne Rash Wayne Rash is a Senior Analyst for eWEEK Labs and runs the magazineÔÇÖs Washington Bureau. Prior to joining eWEEK as a Senior Writer on wireless technology, he was a Senior Contributing Editor and previously a Senior Analyst in the InfoWorld Test Center. He was also a reviewer for Federal Computer Week and Information Security Magazine. Previously, he ran the reviews and events departments at CMP's InternetWeek.

He is a retired naval officer, a former principal at American Management Systems and a long-time columnist for Byte Magazine. He is a regular contributor to Plane & Pilot Magazine and The Washington Post.

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