Apple And The iPhone 4's Reception: Misdirection, Distraction, But No Meaningful Apology or Admission
Speaking of companies who have at-best ambivalence regarding their customers, I’ve been watching with a mix of bemusement and amazement the negative user feedback on Apple’s recently introduced iPhone 4. Some of the problems, I suspect, are scattered in scope and artificially amplified by Internet-published hype regarding anything Apple-related:
Another issue, for folks tapping into Exchange servers, seems to be resolvable exclusively via a software patch. Apparently, iOS v4 by default wasn’t providing sufficient time for initial mailbox refresh; the timeout flaw affected both new iPhone 4 users and those who upgraded their iPhone 3G and 3GS units to iOS v4.
More troubling are the widespread reports of proximity sensor misfires. As review, the purpose of this particular sensor is to disable the touchscreen when a user places the handset close to the ear, in order to prevent (for example) unintended call disconnection. Well, the iPhone 4’s sensor seems to randomly be shirking its responsibilities. Such Apple community notables as John Gruber and the gang at TUAW have noticed it; Aron Trimble’s ‘overly reflective ear canal’ discourse is a classic:
Knowing others were having issues with their proximity sensor, I made an appointment at my local Apple Store with one of the esteemed “Geniuses.” His name will remain redacted but I swear he stifled a laugh when he told me the cause of the problem. Apparently, the re-location of the proximity sensor in iPhone 4 causes the sensor to be more likely to be triggered by light “bouncing around the ear canal.”
I blankly stared at him hoping that he was joking only to find out he was not. My appointed Genius explained that I should try closing the windows because extra ambient light bouncing around my ear will cause the sensor to light up the screen. He said that’s all there was to it and sent me on my way.
I find myself incredulous that such an explanation could even be plausible let alone acceptable as IT fodder. I have worked in a similar situation and can understand the occasional straw-grasping that can occur when a solid explanation can’t be found. Honestly, I would have preferred the Genius to tell me he didn’t know what the cause was and ask me to come back if it happened again.
Again, one would hope that this glitch can be surmounted solely via a software patch, versus necessitating a hardware redesign to relocate the proximity sensor to a more function-amenable site.
Then there’s the cellular reception issue. Ah yes, the antenna. Before continuing, you might be interested in perusing a writeup I just came across from March of last year, published in Wired, which discusses how Nokia shoehorned the 8810’s antenna inside the handset back in 1998. For those of you who haven’t yet heard, some (but not all) iPhone 4 owners are able to attenuate the handset’s received signal strength simply by holding it in the left hand (aka the ‘Grip of Death’):
Why? Check out this image, from the iPhone 4 introduction event:
As iFixit’s teardown discussed, the stainless steel band around the iPhone 4 also serves as the handset’s antennas. And as the above graphic points out, the two antennas are in close proximity at the handset’s left corner. There’s an black-strip insulative gap in-between them. Bridge that gap with your hand, though, and, as AnandTech’s clever analysis points out, you negatively alter the cellular antenna’s fundamental reception attributes (both absolutely and relative to the iPhone 3GS predecessor (interestingly, AnandTech suggests that ‘crossing the streams‘ conversely improves the iPhone 4’s Wi-Fi reception):
For more, see this photo series. The extent of the effect depends on each user’s skin characteristics; moisture, salinity, etc, along with the inherent reception capabilities at a given usage location. And ironically, Apple employees using iPhone 4 prototypes ‘in the wild’ may not have stumbled across the problem (no matter that its obviousness wouldn’t seemingly require field testing to uncover in the first place), since they were using identity-obscuring cases around the handsets…cases (or, if you prefer, user-altered Lance Armstrong-branded wristbands or a piece of non-conductive tape) which have been proven to eliminate the issue by preventing the antenna ’short circuit’ scenario.
About those cases…Apple ‘coincidentally’ for the first time is selling branded cases known as Bumpers. Clearly, they don’t do much to protect the much-vaunted “two glossy panels of aluminosilicate glass - the same type of glass used in the windshields of helicopters and high-speed trains. Chemically strengthened to be 20 times stiffer and 30 times harder than plastic, the glass is ultra-durable and more scratch resistant than ever”:
As such, what’s the Bumpers’ intent, save to cynically redirect incremental revenue away from third-party case historical ‘partners’ and to Apple? If I were a conspiracy theorist, I might wonder if Apple knew about the antenna issue in advance and, instead of fixing the handset design, ‘turn lemons into lemonade’ by developing Bumpers. And lest you think that Apple’s generous enough to hand out free Bumpers to customers who complain about handset reception, think again. The best the company’s willing to do, per its most recent communication on the issue, is to accept iPhone 4’s for return without charging the normal restocking fee.
About that company communication…it’s frankly been a mess. Reception complaints began appearing on Apple’s support forum immediately upon first product shipments to customers. And what was Steve Jobs’ initial response? In an email reply to a frustrated iPhone 4 user, the ascerbic CEO commented, “Non issue. Just avoid holding it in that way.” Nice. A follow-up official statement from Apple was more verbose but no more reassuring:
Gripping any phone will result in some attenuation of its antenna performance, with certain places being worse than others depending on the placement of the antennas. This is a fact of life for every wireless phone. If you ever experience this on your iPhone 4, avoid gripping it in the lower left corner in a way that covers both sides of the black strip in the metal band, or simply use one of many available cases [editor note: such as one of our Bumpers].
Regarding the above ‘fact of life’ comment, both Nokia and Motorola/Verizon beg to differ. A follow-up Steve Jobs email reply to another user extended Apple’s denial trend, “There is no reception issue.” And in a subsequent message series (whose validity is in some dispute), Jobs was no more sympathetic than before, suggesting that the disappointed customers should “Retire, relax, enjoy your family. It is just a phone. Not worth it.” Easy for a billionaire to say, eh?
Finally, we come to the company’s most recent missive, which I mentioned above and which came out on the Friday before the July 4th holiday weekend. The previous sentence’s link will enable you to read the whole thing, which I encourage you to do and which would make any politician proud. I’m going to comment on specific sections:
To start with, gripping almost any mobile phone in certain ways will reduce its reception by 1 or more bars. This is true of iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, as well as many Droid, Nokia and RIM phones.
See, our competition’s got the problem, too, not just us…trust us. Curious that they didn’t mention Windows Mobile-based phones, though.
We have discovered the cause of this dramatic drop in bars, and it is both simple and surprising. 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. Our formula, in many instances, mistakenly displays 2 more bars than it should for a given signal strength.
Tongue-in-cheek (or not) translation: “Our marketing department, along with AT&T, convinced us to report better signal strength than we were actually getting, to make the iPhone seem superior to the competition. Whoops, we got caught. Bad on us.”
For example, we sometimes display 4 bars when we should be displaying as few as 2 bars. Users observing a drop of several bars when they grip their iPhone in a certain way are most likely in an area with very weak signal strength, but they don’t know it because we are erroneously displaying 4 or 5 bars. Their big drop in bars is because their high bars were never real in the first place.
Ok, this makes sense. Some amount of signal attenuation is a given, since the FCC requires that antennas be as far away from the head as possible (i.e. at the bottom of the handset, where it’s normally gripped when in use). So if the iPhone 4 is artificially reporting more signal strength than it’s actually getting under nominal conditions, the degradation subsequently seems worse than it really is under more problematic conditions.
We will issue a free software update within a few weeks that incorporates the corrected formula. Since this mistake has been present since the original iPhone, this software update will also be available for the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 3G.
Wait a minute; the whole point here is that the iPhone 4 is exhibiting much worse reception degradation when gripped than does its predecessors. If this signal strength reporting issue has been in place since the original iPhone, then your proffered ’solution’ really isn’t a solution at all, is it? No, actually, it isn’t. Incredibly disappointing, Apple. Your strategy is flawed from both technical and business perspectives. And Consumer Reports, in a remarkable about-face, now agrees.
Readers, don’t follow Apple down the near-term, short-sighted denial path…doing so will only result in greater long-term damage (fiscal, brand image, etc) than would otherwise occur if you just ‘think different‘ and fess up to the issue up-front.