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iPhone 4: ranting about almost a problem?


By Scott Bradner


It has been a bit depressing to read and watch the ferocious babble about the iPhone 4's antenna problems and Apple's almost reaction to it.  It is amazing how much flame can be generated from so little fuel.  It is also amazing how hard Apple finds it to be open.


The basic thing missing from all of the flamage about the iPhone 4's antenna problem was some idea of how many people were actually impacted by it and how much were they impacted.  It was clear early on that you could mess up your iPhone communications if you tried to by shorting together the iPhone's two antennas with your finger.  What was not clear was how many people were doing this without trying to.  Some people did buy bumpers when the bought the phone and never saw the problem and others did not happen to hold the phone in a way that caused an issue.  None of the news stories or the flames lighting up the blogisphere before Steve Jobs' July 16th press conference 9 ) seemed to be at all interested in the actual scale of the problem.  It would be a very different problem if 2 out of 3 iPhone users had experienced these problems than if one out of 200 had. 


According to the statistics Jobs presented at the press conference the number was closer to one out of 200.  At least that is the number who had called Apple about the problem, this includes more than a week when the problem was all over the press, which, I expect raised the issue awareness in some people. So the number might have been a lot lower without the publicity.  With this small number it is very hard to see what all the hubbub was about.


Consumer Reports' behavior was particularly egregious.  This is an organization that has a long history of finding out what happens with products in the field -- it lists repair records and the like.  Yet it seemed to out of its way to ignore what was happening in the real world in this case.  In the original article Consumer Reports said that a piece of tape would fix the problem yet when Apple agreed to give out protective bumpers Consumer Reports relied on some poppycock to not remove its 'not recommended' label.  Almost like Consumer Reports wanted the publicity more then they wanted the truth.


This is not to say there is no problem.  It does not take an electrical genus to know that touching an antenna changes its behavior - ask anyone who ever used rabbit ear antennas on a TV.  Yet Apple, and Jobs, could not just come out and say that.  The fact did come out in the Q&A, but Jobs should have said it in the first 30 seconds of the press conference.  I'm sure that Apple will figure out a way to have make the system work better without having to have an ugly bumper that blocks use of the iPhone dock but, if history is any guide, they will compulsively keep it secret until the last minute.


I read through a dozen news stories and hundreds of blog postings about this and I did not find all that much logic.  The blog postings tended to be viciously anti Apple, with a good number predicting the company's collapse over this issue or dismissive of any problems (generally from people who had iPhone 4s).  The news stories were generally non-analytical and, too often, sensationalist.   All in all, a sad example of journalism and corporate behavior in the Internet era.


disclaimers:  Harvard, like many other companies, does not officially admit the iPhone 4 exists and I know of no university opinion on antenna design so the above media review is mine alone.