No big deal?

Ever since Apple released the iPhone 4 on 24 June, the loss off signal while holding the phone in a certain way has been an issue with only some users, but this has been discussed ad nauseum on the tech blogs, in mainstream media and even on Letterman. However, the “not-recommended” advice from Consumer Reports was a body blow to Apple’s image as a reliable and trustworthy device maker. Despite this “don’t buy” recommendation, Consumer Reports still rated the iPhone 4 as the best smartphone they have yet tested, two points ahead of its closest rivals, the iPhone 3G and the HTC Evo!

The consensus that is developing after about three weeks of launch is that the problem happens only sometimes and only with some people: “The iPhone 4’s innovative antenna-wrapped-around-the-case improves reception. Except when you use the phone in an area with marginal reception, aren’t using a case, and bridge the gap in the lower left-hand corner with your hand. In that situation, it can be deadly”.

For many, the reception is actually better, and they have been able to make/receive calls at places that were dead zones with other phones earlier. Engadget, a premier tech blog, was not able to consistently duplicate the antenna woes. In addition, an electromagnetic engineer asserts that the Consumer Reports’ study was flawed.

Any new device/design can have defects, but since this one is made by Apple, which is the largest tech company in the world on the basis of its market cap, and Steve Jobs is the demon de jour, these cries have reached a new high. Microsoft seems like yesterday’s news anymore, and people seem to forget that they used to have reservations about Google because of its exploitation of our personal data. Further, it has been suggested that hedge fund managers on Wall St. are feeding the frenzy in hopes of AAPL making them money by its slingshot effect.

What is puzzling is that even if there are 5% dissatisfied users – an acceptable number for a new device, why aren’t 85,000 (5% of 1.7 million sold) being returned? After all, Apple has announced a full refund (no restocking fee) on any iPhone 4 within 30 days of purchase.

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Nevertheless, Apple’s reaction to this issue is far from adequate. Steve Jobs telling a user to “calm down” and that “it happens to all phones” in an email reply is very unworthy, as is his dismissal to “just use a case or bumper“. Apple claims that this email exchange was fake, but the Boy Genius Report blog stands by its story and proves that it is real. This generates a bad PR, which worsens when reports are leaked that an Apple engineer had warned Jobs that the iPhone antenna could fail.

Even more disturbing was Apple’s admission that they “…were stunned to find that the formula we use to calculate how many bars of signal strength to display is totally wrong“, and Apple’s software logarithm ‘over’-calculated the signal strength, so that these “high bars were never real in the first place“. No wonder AT&T has “more bars in more places“! Maybe Apple didn’t realize that the gimmick they pulled since the first iPhone on will come back to haunt them. Daring Fireball has a very funny ‘translation’ of the Apple’s explanation to this fiasco.

For its own sake, Apple will hopefully tackle this better than Toyota, although it would have been better if it handled this matter like McNeill did by issuing a nationwide recall when seven people died in Chicago in 1982, after taking Tylenol. Much is riding on the press conference scheduled for tomorrow, although it is possible that Apple has put itself in a lose-lose situation by waiting so long.

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