Apple’s respone to iPhone 4 antenna problems is unacceptable

Blame everyone but themselves, they are perfect

Apple LogoTHE SMUG ONES from Cupertino have finally done the right thing for iPhone 4 owners with reception problems, that would basically be everyone who owns one. No, they didn’t fix the design flaw, but they did issue a sickly self-congratulatory press release, publicly blame their customers, then deny that the problem is real. How typical.

Lets start out with what the problem is. The iPhone 4 has two antennas, one for the main cellular frequencies (UMTS and GSM), the other for Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and GPS. Two or more antennas is pretty common in most modern phones. The more advanced features, the more radios, and usually that means more antennas.

In the iPhone 4, antennas are in a band along the edge of the phone. Actually, the antennas are the bands in question, you can see them in this Anandtech piece. The problem is that the gap between the two in the lower left corner of the phone is very small, a few mm, far less than the width of a finger.

Thin gaps are aesthetically pleasing to some, and Apple follows the inverse-Bauhaus school of design. “Form is all that matters, function be damned, and you are too small minded to understand His Steveness’ genius, so any problems with build quality, design faults, or just plain bad ideas are your fault. Peons. Go away.” This meant the gap between the antennas had to be as small as possible, anything else might not have problems, so it would never pass internal Apple QC.

If you hold your phone in such a way that you touch both of the antennas at once, the signal goes into the toilet. How bad is it? According to the same Anandtech article linked above, the signal attenuation is up to 17.9dB greater than the 3GS, and 9.1dB more than the Nexus One.

The article goes on to say that the antenna is improved, but if you touch it, the drops about 10x more than the competition. Luckily, if you are in an area that has a strong signal, the worst case drop, 24.6dB according to Anandtech, isn’t enough to show on the signal bars. What an improbable coincidence!

Why does the signal actually drop? Well, that is a tricky question without getting into the RF engineering side of things. Touching the two antennas at the same time is the culprit, but debate rages as to the exact cause, scientifically speaking. The best look at the problem so far is by Rob Thorpe, an RF engineer. It can be found on his blog here. Be sure to check out the video linked, and note that while Apple claims the problem is with reception, it is not, transmission is unarguably affected too.

That brings us to the last problem, the signal bars. If you read the Apple press release on the issue, and can get by the part about how awesome they are, just ask them, you will see the following quote. “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.” Ok, so far, so minor buggish, a minor glitch in a new product.

The next paragraph reads, “To fix this, we are adopting AT&T’s recently recommended formula for calculating how many bars to display for a given signal strength. The real signal strength remains the same, but the iPhone’s bars will report it far more accurately, providing users a much better indication of the reception they will get in a given area. We are also making bars 1, 2 and 3 a bit taller so they will be easier to see.”

Lets parse that. The first sentence says that they ignored AT&T’s advice about how to display signal bars. This may seem innocuous, but things like this are tightly controlled. It is very unlikely that Apple merely asked AT&T to let them do what they wanted, and AT&T said, “Oh what the heck, why not?” Things like this are not easily done by phone makers without turtlecked CEOs.

The next sentence says that the iPhone 4 is NOT displaying the bars correctly, but it, well, is overly optimistic about the signal strength. Reading the two together, you will see that AT&T has a way of reporting the signal strength accurately, but Apple seems to have overridden them to make things look but not act better. I wonder why this ‘bug’ slipped through rigorous testing from both Apple and AT&T? Shades of MS and their Office 97 word ‘bugs’?

Call me overly skeptical, but this can’t have been by accident. Accidents don’t happen in tightly FCC regulated areas like signal strength, especially when it is in favor of the company. Oh yeah, Apple removed the signal strength app called Field Test from the iPhone 4. One little ‘whoopsie’ may be a bug, 23 that all relate to a known and obvious design problem, all of which act in Apples favor, is probably not accidental.

Now that they are going to ‘fix’ this ‘bug’, Apple will also make the signal “bars 1, 2 and 3 a bit taller so they will be easier to see.” The old bars are not hard to see, this is simply a psychological game to make Apple look less bad. Gosh, how nice of them, to do such a self-serving thing on behalf of the customers. It brings a tear to the eye.

Reading the Anandtech article, the Rob Thorpe blog, and the Apple release we can come to a few conclusions. First is that the iPhone 4 has an unacceptable level of signal degradation if used properly, especially if you are left handed. Second, the problem is with the antenna design, Apple cheaped out on not coating it with something akin to clear nail polish that would have prevented the problem. What would have cost them pennies is now only fixable by a recall, but don’t hold your breath for that.

Third, all the evidence points to them knowing about the problem, and actively covering it up. Luckily for Apple, even in the worst case, the signal count was masked by curious signal bar choices. Now that the initial reviews are written, and the hype machine has wound down, that ‘bug’ will be ‘corrected’. Nice timing, eh? Without a subpoena to get the internal emails, any conspiracy is just that, and far from provable. How many bugs does it take to make something intentional? In my opinion, far less than the iPhone’s count.

That brings us back to Apple’s response. The first one, by none other than His Steveness, was to blame the users. No really, he blamed the person who bought the products for holding it wrong. It would be in really poor taste to make the following analogy in joke form, so on with the show:

(The following conversation takes place in a doctors office, with a patient, lets call him ‘Steve’ for no particular reason, is telling the doctor about his ailments.)
Steve: Doctor, my pancreas hurts when I raise my right hand.
Doctor: Don’t raise your right hand. That will be $300. Next!

The next and slightly more official word is in the aforementioned press release. Apple starts out by spending the first paragraph not only congratulating themselves, but also telling how they leapt into action at the first sign of trouble. Lassie would be proud.

Lassie however would probably bite the ankles of anyone who blamed Timmy for getting trapped under the tree branch, but Apple immediately blames the user for using the iPhone 4 in a way that is comfortable for them. Then, caught with their pants down on the signal strength issue, they try to pass it off as a ‘bug’. Sure…….

Lastly, Apple says that if you don’t like it, you are more than welcome to bring it back for a refund and go away, people who hold things the Apple way are welcome to stay. It isn’t a massive and obvious design flaw covered up by very questionable software decisions, it is a piece of art. A piece of art approved by Steve, so you have to love it. Anything less means you will sit alone at the coffee shop, a fate worse than death for most iPhone owners.

In the end, those looking for actual help from Apple are getting the usual stiff arm. Nothing is Apple’s fault, everything is perfect. They made perfection, it is just those damn users who are incompetent or left handed. The rose tint in the windows at One Infinite Loop must be so dark that you can’t see the sky from the cube farms.S|A

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Charlie Demerjian

Roving engine of chaos and snide remarks at SemiAccurate
Charlie Demerjian is the founder of Stone Arch Networking Services and is a technology news site; addressing hardware design, software selection, customization, securing and maintenance, with over one million views per month. He is a technologist and analyst specializing in semiconductors, system and network architecture. As head writer of, he regularly advises writers, analysts, and industry executives on technical matters and long lead industry trends. Charlie is also available through Guidepoint and Mosaic. FullyAccurate