Analysis: Apple takes on antenna issues
In Friday's hotly-anticipated Apple press conference, CEO Steve Jobs talked plenty about the iPhone 4 and its attenuating circumstances. But did the company's announcements genuinely address Antennagate?
To answer that, we need to study what Jobs said more closely—specifically, the key points the company tried to drive home Friday.
Apple and its customers, sitting in a tree...
First, Jobs continually emphasized how much Apple loves its customers—really, really, really loves them. Like, it wants to buy them flowers and chocolates and take them on moonlit strolls down secluded beaches.
OK, that may be over-stating it just a bit, but consider these comments from Jobs taken from Macworld's live blog of the event:
- “We love our users. We really love ’em. And we try very hard to surprise and delight them.”
- “We do all this because we love our users.”
- “We love our customers. And we're going to try to take care of every single one.”
- “When you love your customers as much as we do, nothing's off the table.”
Boy, if only Apple could have been a little more clear about how it feels toward its customers.
An outpouring of affection is nice and all, but that addresses the signal strength of your heart more than that of your iPhone 4. What did Apple have to say in that regard?
Falling signal strength—all the cool phones are doing it
Right off the bat, Jobs emphasized that the issues surrounding the iPhone 4 aren’t unique to that model—many smartphones exhibit identical reception behavior, if held in just the right (or wrong?) way. Not only did Jobs spend a long time on this point, Apple's also devoted an entirely new section of its Website to the same idea. Frankly, it's not a point I expected Apple to give much attention to, but the company was right to do it.
The new Web page provides photographic and video proof of what Apple's saying: Touch phones in the wrong places, and their signal strength will diminish. What Apple doesn't stress, though, is that the iPhone 4's "danger zone" is in a more-likely-to-be-touched spot than it is on many of its competitors' phones. The HTC Droid Eris, for example, sports its antenna near the rear top edge of the phone. Unless you intentionally—and, in my view, awkwardly—reach a finger up there, you're not going to attenuate its signal too much. On the BlackBerry Bold 9700 and Apple's own iPhone 3GS, the spot to avoid touching is in the back bottom center of the phone—risky, but arguably still easier to avoid than the spot on the iPhone 4.
Look, though, at how Apple pictures the grip holding each phone in the "before" views on its site.
All of the phones are carefully held to avoid touching them in the spot that negatively impacts the iPhone 4. Try holding, well, anything in that awkward grip. But you can hold other smartphones in more traditional grips without their signals dropping the way the iPhone 4's would.
That said, Apple's point still holds: Touching smartphones can weaken their signals, due to a design flaw for which physics is to blame. Apple's point here wasn't to tell its customers—whom, remember, Apple loves deeply—that their issues are imagined. Rather, Apple's point was to tell the press to shut up already about the iPhone 4 signal issue, because in Apple's view it's not specifically an iPhone 4 problem. It's a fair point, and I think Apple made it well.
Bumpers for everyone!
Finally, Apple announced the free bumpers (or other third-party cases, since the bumper crop is low this year) for all iPhone 4 owners, and rebates if you already bought a bumper. I think this is a wholly appropriate gesture, as it's been shown repeatedly—even by new Apple nemesis Consumer Reports —that the bumper case alleviates almost all of the attenuation issue.
Some, though, could conceivably look a gift bumper case in the mouth. If you bought a different (non-Apple) case for your iPhone 4, Apple won't give you a refund for it. But chances are you bought the case for reasons of style or protection—perhaps before you'd even heard of or experienced the antenna issue—so I think it's fair that Apple's not refunding the purchase in those situations.
But what if you bought the iPhone 4 not just for the faster processor, the much-improved camera, the video-chatting, or the eye-popping Retina display? What if, instead, you bought the iPhone 4 because of its sexy glass enclosure and overall design, and you don't want to see it encumbered by any case?
In that case, there's still good(ish) news. Jobs specifically stated that anyone who wants to return an undamaged iPhone 4 may do so for a complete refund. The Apple CEO promised no restocking fees, and even suggested that you may still be able to get out of your new AT&T contract, too. So if you bought an iPhone 4, and its (potential) need for a (free) case renders that iPhone 4 less attractive to you, you can take it back. That's actually a pretty fair deal.
On the whole, Apple successfully addressed criticisms leveled at it by press and reviewers, reassured customers of its great affection for them, and offered a problem-solving case to anyone who wants one, free of charge. If you can forget about Steve Jobs's infamous "don't hold it that way" e-mail, and if you can move past the bizarre "the signal bars are wrong" faux-solution, the company finally managed to come up with a response that addressed the controversy pretty well.
[Lex Friedman is a frequent contributor to Macworld.]