Expert: Apple won't change antenna for Verizon iPhone

Editor’s Note: This story is excerpted from Computerworld. For more Mac coverage, visit Computerworld’s Macintosh Knowledge Center.

If an iPhone does appear on Verizon, don’t expect Apple to change its antenna design, an expert said today.

“The antenna could care less what the modulation technique is,” said Spencer Webb, an antenna engineer with nearly a dozen patents to his credit, and the president of AntennaSys , a mobile device antenna design and consulting firm.

“CDMA is a spread-spectrum technology with a broader-based signal than GSM,” Webb said, referring to the technology standards used by the networks of Verizon and AT&T, respectively. “But CDMA isn’t so broad that it makes a difference to the antenna.”

All Apple iPhones have been designed to work on GSM-based mobile networks, but if the speculation about a Verizon iPhone becomes reality, the company would need to craft a smartphone that operates on the CDMA standard.

“I’ve called Apple’s antenna design ‘bold’ and ‘risky,’ but they won’t change it [for a CDMA-based phone]”, Webb added. “The antenna design is architecturally fixed in the design, and it would take them a while to make whatever the next design is.”

Talk of Apple adding Verizon to the iPhone’s stable of U.S. carriers has regularly waxed and waned. Last week, it again spiked when the Daring Fireball blog pegged a January 2011 launch for a Verizon iPhone, months earlier than previous forecasts by some Wall Street analysts, who have bet on a debut later in the first quarter.

Some have hypothesized that Apple would take advantage of a Verizon iPhone to rethink the smartphone’s antenna design in an attempt to avoid the dropped-call and poor-reception complaints that plagued the iPhone 4 during its first weeks.

Those complaints surfaced almost immediately after the iPhone 4’s late-June launch when users reported that touching the external antenna in certain ways and spots dropped calls and sent signal strength into the cellar. Although Apple initially downplayed the problem — telling customers to hold the iPhone 4 differently or buy a case — on July 16 CEO Steve Jobs announced that the company would supply free Bumper covers to all customers.

It’s unlikely Apple would revamp the iPhone 4’s antenna for a Verizon model, Webb said, both for business and technical reasons.

On a business level, Apple is probably committed to retain the iPhone 4’s design for several years. That would mimic the lifespan of the original iPhone design, which went virtually unchanged for three years.

Nor is there an easy fix for the antenna issue, said Webb. “There’s no coating that’s thick enough to make a difference,” he said, dismissing talk that Apple could reduce the problem by adding a non-conductive coating to the external stainless steel band that houses the antennas.

“It’s all about getting the lossy conductor, the human, away from the iPhone,” he said, which is what the Bumper does, but tape — much less an even thinner coating — would not.

According to Webb, it’s less about the material that separates skin from the steel band than it is about the thickness of that material. Scotch tape, for instance, is worthless, as is electrical tape unless several layers are applied.

Webb doesn’t expect that Apple will revert to sticking the antenna inside the iPhone’s case, where it was located until the iPhone 4. Calling Apple’s move a “design choice” that had known trade-offs, Webb said he has no idea how Apple will address what in hindsight became a major negative: dropped calls.

“You can bet your bippy that they’re going to be addressing this issue somehow,” said Webb. “They want to be the smartest guys on the planet, which is what comes from adversity like this.”

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