iPhone Antenna Flaw: Apple Remains in Denial

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2010-07-12

iPhone Antenna Flaw: Apple Remains in Denial

I can only assume that life for Steve Jobs is getting worse by the day. At least it must be if he cares about the image of Apple as a provider of quality products, or if he cares about treating his customers openly and fairly. But it's also possible that he doesn't care at all as long as he's hailed for creating the coolest products on the planet. As long as it's cool, who cares if it works? 

Of course, we don't know what Jobs is really thinking, although his public responses to the iPhone 4's antenna problem sound a lot more like spin than they sound like real concern. Reception problems? All phones have reception problems. Inconvenient placement for the antenna insulator? Hold it differently or spend another 30 bucks for a case. The list goes on, as P.J. Connolly points out in his blog entry

The problem is that the list of Apple's excuses goes on and on. It must be software. You must be holding it wrong. It can't possibly burst into flames. I suspect the next spin attempt will be to suggest that the engineers at Consumer Reports don't know how to test phones (which is what the comments from the Apple fanbois are already saying). The fact is, however, that Apple screwed up and is loath to admit it. 

When I examined the design of the iPhone 4's antenna, I pointed out at the time that the choice of a location for the plastic insulator between the two antennas that are formed by the outside metal band of the device was going to cause usability problems. The reason is easy enough to see if you understand how antennas work, whether they're attached to your smartphone or your car radio. 

To work in the proper frequency range, an antenna must be a specific physical length. There are a lot of ways that this can be done, and there are ways that you can make an antenna appear to be a different length than its measurements might indicate, but it still comes down to one fact that's dictated by the physics of antennas-that is, if you change the length of the antenna, you will change the characteristics. If an antenna is tuned properly for one set of frequencies, and you make it longer or shorter, it won't work as well. 

Admitting There Is a Problem Is More Difficult Than the Fix


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.

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