Jobs' iPhone 4 Antenna Solution: Rubber Bumpers, Not Contrition

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2010-07-18

Jobs' iPhone 4 Antenna Solution: Rubber Bumpers, Not Contrition

Apple's Steve Jobs, in a hastily called news conference, announced July 16 that the iPhone 4 really doesn't have any problems. The issues with the external antenna are a product of the imagination of the media. The complaints of dropped calls are minimal and no worse than any other phone.

Then he conceded that Apple makes mistakes (although he didn't mention any) and said he'd give iPhone 4 users a free rubber bumper if they'd just go away and shut up.

The production, of course, was exactly what you'd expect from Jobs. He arrogantly absolved himself and Apple of all guilt; he said that other smartphone makers were worse; and he pointed to a fairly small return rate and a small set of complaints to Apple's help desk as proof. He also showed us pretty photos of an anechoic chamber that he said proved that Apple tests its phones as a way to refute Consumer Reports.

It was quite a performance. There probably hasn't been that much spin in one room since the last Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Never mind that Apple was being skewered by a usually fawning press corps. Never mind that an anechoic chamber is used to keep sound interference to a minimum, but doesn't do anything for radio waves. And never mind that, as eWEEK's P.J. Connolly points out, Apple never did any field testing without encasing the phone in a rubber disguise.

The fact is, the press conference didn't do anything for anyone except Jobs and his PR staff. The stock has already taken a hit, and Jobs pointedly said that he wasn't going to apologize to investors. Confidence has taken a hit, and Jobs attempted to deflect that criticism. The only thing left that Jobs could criticize was other smartphones. He claimed to show that a BlackBerry Bold 9700 would lose its signal when held a certain way. Then he tried the same thing with an Android device and a Windows Mobile device.

I tried the same Jobs Death Grip with a BlackBerry Bold 9700, and I was not able to duplicate the results, despite being in a weak signal area. I tried every Android device in the lab, and I couldn't duplicate the results there, either. I also tried a couple of Windows Mobile devices, but, well, they couldn't detect a signal with or without the Jobs Death Grip. 

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Was Jobs making this up? Does he perhaps hold press conferences in one of those multigazillion dollar anechoic chambers? Or did he find out that you can attenuate a radio signal if you stand in just the right place on the stage? Who knows?

The fact is that Apple is the only smartphone company that has designed a device that requires the user to make electrical contact with the antenna for it to be used. The company has now found out that this poses usability problems, as has been previously revealed here by eWEEK. Instead of taking responsibility for overruling its engineers in its never-ending quest for coolness, it blames the users, the carrier, other phone companies, and of course, the press.

And of course, he cast aspersions on Consumer Reports, the magazine that had the nerve to actually run scientifically sound tests that could be repeated, and found the device wanting. And while I have some sympathy for Consumer Reports, I also remember what has happened in the past when companies have challenged their testing ability. History is littered with the carcasses of the cars that flip over, the appliances that burst into flames and the smartphones that don't work when you put your finger, well, here.

So in response to all of this, Apple has been forced to do exactly what Consumer Reports said they must do. That is to fix the problem, and to do it for free. To quiet the masses, Jobs announced that anyone who has bought a case for their iPhone 4 can get reimbursed. He also said that the company would offer free cases to anyone buying an iPhone 4 until Sept. 30. But, of course, if you bought the case from anyone besides Apple, all bets are off. You're stuck with the cost.

So now Apple is probably feeling just swell. His Imperial Highness has once again vanquished the naysayers; the investors have been kept at bay; the accessory makers are once again dumped on; and all is well with the world. Kind of.

While the Cupertino Crowd was scheming and figuring how many bumpers it would have to write off, the Android world was releasing a series of devices that are facing the iPhone 4 with faster operation, bigger screens, actual wireless networks that function and customer-focused policies.

Right now, only Apple's most passionate fans think this is an excellent product. Sure, it really is pretty good, once you get past those little problems. But so are the Droid X and the Evo. And they don't have antenna problems. And they don't have arrogance as a marketing technique.

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