Apple Hiring Antenna Engineers for iPhone

Apple has been hiring antenna engineers, leading blogs and online pundits to suggest the company is trying to fix widely reported issues with its antenna's reception. However, Apple insists that issue is software-related, not hardware.

Apple has been hiring antenna engineers, possibly in an attempt to address the reception issues that have been plaguing the company's newly released iPhone 4. Although Apple issued a July 2 statement suggesting that customers' reception issues have been software-related, the investigation into the matter-or else the need to ensure such a thing never happens again-may well have necessitated the extra manpower.

Within hours of the first customers receiving their iPhone 4 June 24, the first day of general release, reports began to emerge of a technical issue: touching the device's metal antenna band, which runs along the outer rim, seemed to reduce certain users' reception to zero. Limited in-office tests by eWEEK were able to consistently replicate the phenomenon, and tech blogs such as Gizmodo quickly began posting video of users touching the smartphone's rim and making its on-screen reception bars disappear.

Apple's corporate site posted three job postings for antenna engineers on June 23; openings for related positions, such as iPhone OTA Wireless Systems Engineer, have appeared during the same timeframe.

According to the Apple job posting, an iPhone antenna engineer must "define and implement antenna system architecture to optimize the radiation performance for wireless portable devices." The company is looking for engineers with "strong problem solving skills," and prefers those with a doctorate.

Despite those job postings' appearance on the Apple Website a full 24 hours before reports of iPhone 4 reception issues, numerous tech blogs and online pundits have been trying to draw a connection between Apple's need for antenna engineers and those reports. Why hire those workers, they ask, if not to address what threatens to turn into a public-relations fiasco for Apple?

But Apple has started insisting that the problem is software-related, not hardware.

"Upon investigation, we were stunned to find that the formula we use to calculate how many bars of signal strength to display is totally wrong," Apple wrote in a July 2 statement posted on its corporate Website. "Our formula, in many instances, mistakenly displays 2 more bars than it should for a given signal strength." In the company's offered example, that means an iPhone is liable to display four bars' worth of signal strength when it should be displaying as few as two bars.

Apple's statement then focused on the recent iPhone 4 issues: "Users observing a drop of several bars when they grip their iPhone in a certain way are most likely in an area with weak signal strength, but they don't know it because we are erroneously displaying 4 or 5 bars." The bar-drop, then, is "because their high bars were never real in the first place."

Apple plans on issuing a software update within "a few weeks" that will correct the supposedly erroneous formula. "The real signal strength remains the same, but the iPhone's bars will report it far more accurately, providing users a much better indication of the reception they will get in a given area." The update will also be somewhat cosmetic, with taller bars.

The iPhone 4 enjoyed sales of 1.7 million units during its first three days of release, but subsequent issues have threatened to tarnish that success. In addition to the reports of bad reception, massive customer demand led to a meltdown of Apple's and AT&T's ordering systems on the iPhone 4's first day of presales, and preorder shipment dates have been pushed back to July 14.

"While the channel supply issue might not impact total iPhone sales for the entire year, what is happening now certainly has done some damage to the Apple brand," Tina Tend, an analyst with iSuppli, wrote in a June 29 research note. "Consumers, questioning Apple's supply chain management capability, have started looking for alternate devices. In particular, customers not satisfied with Apple's response to the antenna issue causing poor reception and dropped calls."

Nonetheless, iSuppli predicts that iPhone 4 shipments in 2010 of 21.7 million units, or 51 percent of total iPhone shipments for the year. Apple's own top-line forecast predicts overall iPhone shipments of 42.6 million units in 2010, followed by 53.5 million units in 2011, and 77.5 million units by 2014. Perhaps those engineers have been hired to tweak subsequent versions of the iPhone, and spare those future customers any reception problems.