iPhone 4 Antenna Issues – The Facts vs The Fiction

At this point in time, you’ve probably heard about some of the antenna issues surrounding the iPhone4. There are other issues too, but let’s focus on one thing at a time. Everybody has their own opinion on this, I’ve read thoughts and posts from all walks, some of which border on the ridiculous. This issue can be divided up into the plain facts and the speculation. . There is no doubt that the iPhone4 is a great piece of hardware that will continue to sell millions, that’s not under question. Here’s how I understand it:

FACTS:

  • The FCC undergoes radiation testing called SAR (Specific Absorption Rate). The positioning of the antenna which results in lowest SAR to the user is at the bottom or back of the phone, hence most manufacturers lean towards this. (Link)
  • The iPhone4 has two separate antennas, one for Wifi/Bluetooth/GPS and one for cellular/mobile telephony (ie. GSM/UMTS). (Link) This was advertised on the iPhone4’s launch as a feature.
  • If the gap where these two antenna meet is bridged by an electrically conductive surface (ie. a piece of metal), the antennas become detuned and call quality / throughput degrades, this is repeatedly demonstrable. (Link)
  • The amount of degradation can vary from a few bars dropping to, dropping calls or throughput entirely. (Link)
  • This only affects a small proportion of users and does not affect other functions of the device.
  • If the area is covered up in a case of some kind, or the user is wearing gloves, the bridging does not occur and the signal does not degrade substantially.
  • Nearly all phones do exhibit some kind of degradation in signal quality when the user holds the phone due to the nature of human flesh, however the external antenna design of the iPhone4, specifically where the antennas meet, causes an abnormally large drop in signal quality, more so than other phones. (Link)
  • Shortly after Consumer Reports tested and recommended against the iPhone4, Apple announced they would be giving out free bumpers to all and a refund if requested.
  • The iOS4.0.1 update (nor any software update) will fix this physical issue with the phone. It’s physics. At the most it will give the illusion of fixing it. (Link)
  • The iPhone4 also suffers from a proximity sensor issue.
  • Apple is not the underdog anymore (at least not with a $230b market cap and over $30bn cash reserve).
  • That the issue will be revisited in September by Apple.

SPECULATION AND RUMOUR:


  • “This issue is overblown.”
  • That Apple intentionally removed the field service code from iOS4 (along with the ability to view the signal strength in dBm rather than ‘bars’), in order to somewhat mask this signal drop issue.
  • That Apple put aesthetics ahead of functionality in the design of their new phone.
  • That ‘repaired’ units from Apple for other issues, have come back not exhibiting these problems anymore, possibly due to revisions in hardware.
  • That everybody is out to get Apple.
  • That Apple placed the antenna at the bottom because they are concerned about your health.
  • Everybody should just buy a bumper because it’s cheap.
  • By September, there will nearly definitely be a revision of the phone which fixes these issues.
  • That people should change the way they hold their phones to avoid dropping calls/data.

My thoughts:


Yes, nearly all phones do suffer from some signal degradation if you hold it in the right spot, but that’s not under question. We know they do already, we also know that the iPhone4 drops ‘excessive’ signal. The question is, why does it do this? One would think that with such elaborate antenna testing facilities (link) they would have picked up the issue when an average person holds the phone in an average way. The reason that this story is a huge deal is two reasons. The first is the obvious, that Apple only release one phone a year, therefore it has to be a gem. Any flaws in Apple products are picked on because of the very reason they are successful. The second reason is that there’s been a growing amount of dissent towards Apple. The iPhone4 leak and the way they handled it (link), the monopolistic nature of their hardware manufacturing, their closed ecosystem and the way they handled initial reports of signal loss (link). This is a debate on it’s own which we won’t go into any further.

In this case, one of the key ‘features’ of the iPhone4, the external antenna, has fallen flat and caused a problem. As Nokia and RIM (both of which have been making phones long before the iPhone) pointed out shortly after the Apple press conference, there’s a reason why manufacturer’s don’t place unshielded antennas on the outside of the phone, because of things like this. Long story short, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. This also highlights a problem with a one phone a year strategy, it has to be absolutely perfect in the face of intense and rapid competition, or else the flaws become exponentially larger, because there’s no other phone that you offer for the next year. Knowing what we know now, read the transcript of the Apple press conference to address these issues. Pay close attention and you will notice how expertly Steve Jobs phrases his statements, he is a master at his art.

“You know, we’re not perfect. We know that, you know that. And phones aren’t perfect either.” <= He immediately deflects the issue from an ‘iPhone4’ issue to a general ‘Phone’ issue. This is the basis of his defence as we will see. You can tell he’s defensive because he spends the next few minutes churning out stats about how well the iPhone4 is selling and how important customers are. Call it ‘downplaying’.

“We started getting reports about issues with the antenna system, and, the problems they were saying… Gizmodo put their video on the web, touching the corner, and people were seeing a large drop in bars.” <= The next step is then to deflect the issue into a ‘bars’ issue, rather than a signal strength issue. Bars is a visual phenomenon, which is completely ambiguous in nature, varies from each manufacturer to the next and definitely well within adjustability by software. Blame the bars, offer a software fix and some people may never know better.

“Well we first learned that this doesn’t just happen to the iPhone, Nokia, Motorola… other phones have this issue. But we didn’t trust the videos on YouTube, we started doing our own testing… here’s what we discovered.” <= Once the topic is on bars, then he has free reign to bring up competing examples of bar reduction, versus actual signal strength degradation. Nevermind that every manufacturer has a different method of measuring bars, or that the actual issue is call / data dropping rather than the signal strength. Masterful! Now the investigation goes from possible bad design on the iPhone4, to an unfortunate condition with afflicts us all.

“This is life in the smartphone world. Phones aren’t perfect. It’s a challenge for the whole industry. Every phone has weak spots.” <= Once again, shifting the attention from the iPhone4’s design to a challenge that the entire industry faces. The last line is crucial, because he’s about to point out the iPhone4’s weak spot.

“We made it very visible with a little help from our friends on websites. We put this little line here… ‘here’s where you touch it everybody!'” <= He makes it seem like it’s an unusual place to hold the phone, even though nearly everybody will be pressing into that point when they are talking on the phone. In Apple marketing material and in his own keynote, Jobs holds the phone on that spot.

“we had a reporting error — we screwed up on our algorithm. Some of these other phones may be too generous. Our choice was to put the correct algorithm in.” <= Blames the software. Implies that competitors are too generous with their phones and may be incorrect.

“So what percentage have called AppleCare? 0.55% Just one half of one percent.” <= Which is more than the HTC Droid Eris received, one of the phones he pointed out in his presentation.

“the iPhone 4 drops less than one additional call per 100 than the 3GS. Less than one.” <= The 3GS reported drops around 1% of it’s calls, this means the iPhone4 drops double that to around 2%. (link required)

“We love our users, they reward us by staying our users.” <= We promise to make it up to you, pretty please? They then spent the Q&A session dodging questions. They were definitely not comfortable, but this is a press conference that had to happen to curb the growing dissent.

So we’ve seen that he’s taken an issue that the market has had and the news outlets had been reporting on, and swiftly deflected it not only away from the iPhone4, but onto competitors. He then offers free cases for all. There’s only so much a company can do, that’s true, especially if it’s a choice between free bumpers (which costs next to nothing) and a toothless software update, versus a billion dollar recall or lawsuits, I know which option I’d be picking.

There’s absolutely no doubt that the iPhone4 has and will continue to sell well and that it’s a great piece of hardware, I don’t doubt that all manufacturers make a mistake at one time or another. What I find interesting is the way that they are able to deflect these issues, provide half-baked responses and blaming the media for over-blowing the issue, when it’s their job to investigate and report these things. It’s overblown when it’s negative, but when it’s free promotion, it’s fine? More double standards.

There’s a lot to be said about the brilliant way that Apple markets to the emotions, something which often encourages rabid loyalty. Some may view their response as arrogant or over-simplified, possibly arrogant, but maybe that’s what their audience prefers. Often people get caught up in the ideas and the philosophy and the details then become irrelevant.

My request to you is to do your research before your next phone purchase, keep your mind open to all options on the market and buy the phone which suits you the best or the one which does everything you want it to. It may surprise you to know that there are alternatives out there. If there’s something you don’t like, vote with your wallet. If it turns out that you buy an iPhone after knowing everything, then that’s fine by me, just don’t do it blindly or by habit, there’s nothing worse than ignorance.


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