Editorial: On Apple’s Handling of the iPhone 4 Antenna Issue

As iLounge’s Publisher was climbing Mt. San Jacinto and our Editor-in-Chief was outside the country during the iPhone 4 “Antennagate” event last week, we didn’t offer our immediate perspectives on what happened at Apple’s headquarters on Friday. So we’re taking this opportunity to briefly share our thoughts today, and offering you a place to post your views, as well.

For those keeping count, there was no payout on our iPhone 4 Debacle Bingo Card, but nine of the predictions were either partially or fully realized. Confronted by increasingly bad press regarding iPhone 4 cellular reception and other issues, Apple used the hastily-announced event to tout strong sales of the device, minimize concerns over its antenna, and then—with a literal shrug—offer solutions to the supposedly few users with problems, either in the form of free cases or no-questions-asked returns. In other words, Apple suggested that a small group of people were making a really big deal over nothing, and that it was going to kowtow to those people solely because it wants to satisfy all of its customers. The company also attempted to downplay claims that it had not adequately tested the iPhone 4 before release, primarily by pointing to a collection of on-site testing labs and engineers tasked with ferreting out problems, complete with a bunch of cool pictures of its once-secret facilities.


But from the event’s odd opening with a derisive YouTube video to its ending with a series of attacks on media reports during a Q&A session, the overriding image Apple conveyed last Friday was a defensive posture—and evasive, besides. Despite the company’s 18 Ph.D scientists and engineers, 17 anechoic testing chambers, and unquestionably brilliant executive and design teams, the iPhone 4 somehow shipped with a patently obvious antenna flaw that anyone with $199 and a social security number could discover for themselves at home. As we and many others discovered, holding the iPhone 4 in a natural way can kill its cellular data speeds and make it drop phone calls. Apple CEO Steve Jobs attempted to conflate the iPhone’s specific problem of a touchable external weak spot with the general problem of wireless signal attenuation—suffered by many cell phones—but competitors quickly disputed his claims, suggesting that the iPhone 4’s sometimes complete cellular signal loss is as unique as the external antenna design that invites it.

Then, there were the statistics issues. For all of the antenna engineering savvy Apple touted before and during the event, the iPhone 4 was revealed to drop more calls than the iPhone 3GS, a fact that Jobs downplayed by omitting the iPhone 3GS’s call drop rate. According to a report, however, iPhone 4 actually drops twice as many calls as the iPhone 3GS, which really says something given past iPhones’ propensity for unexpected mid-conversation disconnections. Additionally, rather than pointing to its own internal return rate for iPhone 4 hardware—one that would have been easy to track and more significant given Apple’s greater allocation of units during the product’s launch—the company opted to cite only the returns of a single reseller, AT&T, for reasons unknown. Finally, at a time when more Apple customers than ever are seeking in-person assistance at Apple Stores, Apple pointed to the small number of reception-related telephone calls to its AppleCare line as evidence of modest consumer concern. Without context, Apple’s numbers provided little actual information, and have justifiably been deemed “misleading.”

They also do not track with what we’ve been hearing or seeing over the past several weeks. Some of our readers, friends, and family have been completely unconcerned with the iPhone 4’s performance—a majority, even, as suggested by our most recent poll—and as our own review of the iPhone 4 noted, the device is indeed the best iPhone ever, so long as you wrap it in a case. Though we did not believe it to be worthy of our high recommendation because of the well-known design issues, we didn’t hesitate to offer it a qualified and general recommendation, and praised its many positive attributes. Yet there is a significant minority of perhaps a quarter or third of people who have been so put off by either the iPhone 4 problems or Apple’s handling of them that they’ve held off on purchases that they otherwise would have made. Reception is only one of their concerns; they’re also worried about the durability of its glass body, problems with its proximity sensor, and other issues that may or may not be solvable with accessories or updated software. As has unfortunately become Apple’s modus operandi over the past several years, the only responses consumers get on these issues have been friendly but awkward silences from Apple representatives, and the occasional “keep waiting and we might fix it” hints from the company’s executives.

Judged from the perspective of common sense and decency, Apple’s iPhone 4 press conference wasn’t just long in coming—it was on the very fine edge of insulting. The company had a full opportunity to confront a design flaw that had been properly identified by average users and journalists alike, lay out temporary and long-term solutions to the problem, and apologize sincerely for making a very obvious mistake. No one needed Apple’s CEO to grovel or hand out $50 bills; actual contrition and 50 cents of antenna-coating plastic film would have sufficed. Or there could have easily been a “surprise and delight” moment for iPhone 4 customers who have added nearly a billion dollars to Apple’s coffers over the past month—the company can surely afford it. Instead, the event had an acidic tone that suggested that whiney consumers and pageview-obsessed journalists were to blame for the debacle, all parts of some conspiracy to tear Apple down because of its recent successes. The result of this unnecessarily bad attitude was the gloomiest Apple event in the past decade—as disheartening for some of the Apple faithful as Jobs’ embrace of an investment from Microsoft back in 1997, and one that Apple understandably still hasn’t posted to its Keynotes podcast page days later (it’s available only with explanation pages here). What could have been a golden moment for the Apple brand turned out to be a day that many people would just prefer to forget, even though the protective case solution offered will ultimately satisfy most users with grip-related reception problems.

Readers, there’s a poll on iLounge.com’s front page where you can render your opinion on Apple’s handling of the iPhone 4 issues, so cast your votes if you haven’t already. If you have deeper, more interesting thoughts and insights to share, we’d love to see them in the comments section below.

Latest News