Let me set the tone for this article. First, I think the iPhone 4 is the best smartphone ever created. And I think Apple should be proud of it and hold it up as an example of exemplary engineering and design. But it has a small issue that crops up for a certain number of users. That said, Apple has a PR crisis on their hands. They are partially to blame, and this press conference did very little to help their current nightmare.
Apple started off the press conference by showing the following YouTube video. Interesting that they started off with a little bit of humor for something that so many people are so passionate about. Here’s that video.
What’s the problem, Steve?
Next up, Steve Jobs came on stage wearing his usual uniform of acid washed jeans and a black turtleneck, and told the crowd that Apple made a mistake but wants to make their customers happy.
“We’re not perfect. Phones aren’t perfect. We know that, you know that. But we want to make all our users happy. If you don’t know that, you don’t know Apple. We’re going to talk about how we’re going to do that.
“We’re going to talk about the problems and the data we’ve got. The iPhone 4 is perhaps the best product we’ve ever made at Apple. We’ve sold well over 3 million since we launched it just over 3 weeks ago. It’s been judged the number one smartphone by a variety of publications (ed. note: including Cosumer Reports) — people seem to like it.
It has the highest customer satisfaction rating of any iPhone, and of any smartphone. However, we started getting some reports about people getting issues with the antenna system. People have been seeing a large drop in bars, and this has been since dubbed antennagate.”
Steve then went on to show video demonstrations of other phones suffering a drop in bars from death grips of their own. This included the Blackberry Bold 9700 dropping from 5 bars to 1, the HTC Droid Eris Android phone going from 4 to 0 bars, and the Samsung Omnia 2 Windows Mobile phone going from 5 bars to 1. “This is life in the smartphone world. Phones aren’t perfect.” said Steve Jobs. More details on those test are available on the Apple site.
This wasn’t typical classy Apple. They don’t usually show product faults in others. An interesting PR change from Apple we’ve seen in the last keynote (comparisons with Android), and this one. Apple going on the defensive and not staying on their high ground. I, for one, don’t like it.
But, nevertheless, this is an interesting demonstration. But what they didn’t address is if this drop in bars also had the effect of immediately dropping calls or data connections like is seen in the iPhone 4 under very specific instances.
Again, from Steve Jobs “We screwed up on our algorithm. Again, all smartphones seem to do this — we haven’t figured out our way around the laws of physics. Yet.”
Apple then went on to share some unprecedented data with us on how prolific this problem really is, or in this case isn’t. Of all owners, 0.55% have called AppleCare about the issue. This turns out to be about 16,500 users calling in on the issue. You have to wonder though, how many of those user actually have the problem on a regular basis and how many are calling just because they heard there was a problem.
Return rates are astonishingly low. In the early days of the iPhone 3GS release, AT&T were seeing around a 6% return rate. Pretty low rates for a smartphone. The return rates for the iPhone 4 have been just 1.7% — an amazingly low number.
The final stat shared was drop rates using data pulled directly from AT&T. This is where the iPhone 4 actually has a worse record. According to the records from AT&T, the iPhone 4 has less than 1% more dropped calls per 100 calls. Not a large number. So what, the iPhone 4 drops 98 calls out of 100 and the iPhone 3GS drops 97 out of 100 on AT&T? (that’s humor, folks)
Now the real question — if AT&T can tell the dropped calls, why can’t they automatically credit you for them? Why do you have to call in for each dropped call to get credit? But, back to Apple.
Steve mentioned that he has gotten over 5,000 emails from people saying that their iPhone 4 works fine and can’t figure out the problem. And he re-itterated that Apple cares about all of their users and are not going to stop until every one of them is happy.
And even all this bad press hasn’t hurt the sales of the iPhone 4. They are selling every one that they can make and report this as their most successful product launch ever.
Ok, that’s all good, and falling bars is an issue, true. But it’s not the real issue and Apple failed to really address that the issue was the physical design of the device and some strange body chemistry issues.
Cover up that Achilles heel, but with style.
Apple took a chance with the external antenna design of the iPhone 4. And while in many ways that paid off with an antenna better than any phone ever made — not to mention a pretty striking look — it also exposed a serious weak point. This lower left spot where two antennas meet is the root of the issue. The “spot” is the Achilles heel of the fantastic design of the iPhone 4. And even though Apple failed to specifically say it, for now there’s just one solution. Cover it up. Put a case on your beautiful iPhone 4.
Now the truth is not everyone will need to put a case on their iPhone 4 to insulate it. It depends somewhat on your body chemistry and how you use your phone. But for a certain percentage of users, this is the only workaround. For some people if they touch that spot and bridge those two antennas, you don’t block the signal — it would seem to be impossible to block a signal from a 5 inch long antenna with a 1/4 inch touch from as little as a fingertip. But what you are doing is scrambling something that causes a near instant drop in a call or stoppage of data transfer.
So for those iPhone 4 owners that want it, Apple will be giving free cases for iPhone 4s purchased through the end of September. These won’t all be bumpers — and may not be any bumpers at all. Apple says they can’t make enough bumpers to wrap one around every iPhone 4 so they will have a variety of cases that people can choose from. If you have already bought a bumper from Apple, they will refund the cost to you though.
You will be able to go to the Apple web site starting next week to either request your refund or order from a variety of cases.
Proximity sensor fix coming
Another common complaint about the iPhone 4 has to do the the proximity sensor. That’s the sensor that turns off the screen and stops your cheek from pressing buttons when you put the phone up to you ear. Some users are seeing it stay on or flash on and off and this can lead to ending calls or dialing numbers while on a call. Apple says a fix for that will be in the next iOS update.
Does it come in white?
An update on the white iPhone 4. It will begin shipping in late July in limited quantities.
Where do we go from here?
Following the announcements, Apple opened for a little Q&A with the invited press. The questions were pretty standard stuff with most reporters asking the same questions that has just been answered. Apple specifically invites friendly reporters to events where they will have Q&A sessions at, so nothing too hard ball was thrown. The hardest questions were skirted deftly and without the slightest pushback from the attending press. The toughest question came from Ryan Block of the great gadget site, gdgt. He asked specifically about the Achilles heel issue we’ve seen with a single finger stopping instantly the data connection or dropping a call. This was not really answered but the same mantra reiterated that your body can be an effective signal absorber. I don’t think that’s what we’re seeing in this specific case, as I said above. But that was the answer.
Also asked was why Apple is only providing cases through September. And the answer was that they are looking at other options. I think this means that they are looking for ways to really fix the issue. Perhaps a clear coat on the antenna that will insulate it — or an internal solution to fix the issue. So in September I think we’ll see one of two things happen. Either a revision of the iPhone 4 that fixes the problem, or an extension of the free case program. That will also inform what kind of design we will see for the next iPhone. As I’m sure we won’t see the same design unless the issue can be resolved.
Interestingly, when Steve announced the free cases, Apple stock price jumped up about 4 points or around 2%. Almost immedately after it fell back 3 points.
In whole, I think this whole issue says more about Apple as a company. As they grow, and they have grown considerably over the past few years, the family expands. And as that family expands it will grow from from a tight knit group of informed friendly fans to a group that includes people that like to cause trouble and complain just because that is their nature. You know the kind of person I’m talking about. This is the new problem that Apple needs to figure out. But I think their message to those people was pretty clear today. Apple will give you a way to workaround this issue for free. If you don’t like it, they’ll give you all your money back.
And because of those complainers, I’m not sure if this PR nightmare is over. Those complainers want a hard fix, not a workaround. I hope this has at least informed the majority of people to what the problems are and how Apple will answer those problems. But then again, Apple may not have been as honest with their response as they should have been either. So maybe they didn’t help.
Either way, the answer is the same. If you have a problem with the antenna, put a case on it. If that doesn’t work for you, return it.
Now, can we all move on to something else? Some other topic? Can we start talking about the next iPod Touch? What about Apple TV? Anything, not no more antennas!
Want to watch the press conference? Apple has put it up for all to watch. Though it doesn’t contain the Q&A that followed.
Apple have also put up some information on their $100 million dollar antenna testing labs.