Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Real Lesson for Apple over the iPhone 4 Antenna Issue

The July 16 iPhone 4 Special Press Conference was an interesting affair. If you haven't watched the video or read a live blog, you need to. Also check out Apple's site on smartphone antenna performance.

The Real Lesson
Let's state for the sake of argument the following:

  • All smartphone's have at least 1 spot on then where a wrap-around hand hold can attenuate the signal
  • iPhone 4 is the only smartphone that has a permanent bullseye on its weak spot
  • The ability to attenuate any smartphone is due to a number of variables including:
    • Hands wetness/dryness
    • Position relative to cell tower, i.e. is your body between smartphone and tower
    • Signal strength algorithm is non-standard between mobile OSes
    • Build quality, aka fit and finish, of individual units.
You may or may not be able to attenuate your phone at any given time using a death grip due to the interaction of all the above (and likely more) variables. I only today after owning an iPhone 3GS for over a year learned how to attenuate the device at will when holding it bare. I can't replicate this at work in NYC so far. In a case, I can't attenuate anywhere.

The conclusion seems obvious: signal attenuation due to hand position is a mobile industry open secret.

Apple, re-emergent in the last decade as a tech powerhouse, is the seeming antithesis of nearly all other consumer electronic and software companies. Apple doesn't settle for the good enough solution, they go for the best within their constraints and look good doing it. That's their MO, it's their DNA. The perception that Apple is only as good as the competition would be a company and brand damaging situation. They set themselves up, and users hold them to, the highest possible standards with their products. You tend to do that when words like magical and revolutionary are being thrown around. Except this time, Apple accepted a trade-off that signal attenuation performance was good enough.

Apple listened to its antenna engineers, surely some of the smartest folks on the planet. I'm betting they said signal attenuation performance comparable to competitive smartphones was acceptable, much better could not currently be achieved. You could think of this as the "but everyone's doing it" defense we all at one time as children use, but that doesn't make it right. Remember, putting the antenna inside the iPhone 3GS does not eliminate attenuation, only an electrically insulated material can do that, like rubber, latex, or plastic, hence the free bumper offer for iPhone 4 buyers. So Apple signed off on iPhone 4 design because in they're testing, the iPhone 4 as other's have reported has better reception in weak signal areas, no doubt due to its new external antenna design.

Once the story broke that iPhone 4 could be attenuated and the reproduction steps were easy, due to the visible gap, the eyeball whore media ran the story into the ground. Few "news organizations" were doing any real scientific reporting (AnandTech was a notable exception, within their limits) on this being an industry wide problem, they just smelled blood in the water, on a tech titan.

This is where Apple has their Microsoft moment, not specifically a Vista moment, but an "attack the winner" moment characterized by negative poorly researched hit pieces that only come when you are the alpha dog, or very close to it, which Microsoft has endured for ages. The lesson from this incident should be sobering: The sharks are going to come for Apple now whenever the tinniest drop of blood is smelled in the water. Since they've set themselves up as the premier high quality consumer electronic and software company, they won't get a meter of wiggle room, especially on flagship products. As thorough as Apple seems to have been on testing iPhone 4, they have to raise their game. They shouldn't accept, and their users certainly don't, a scenario where Apple goes along with the status quo. That seems to be what happened with iPhone 4 signal attenuation performance. I don't think Apple as it currently is could survive to many more negative press drubbings like this without permanent damage. But hey if it all goes south, Apple could just put Steve Jobs shirtless on a horse and sent personalized twitter video replies instead of emails to turn the ship around. Or just hire Isiah Mustafa, the Old Spice guy!