Perspective: Apple's iPhone 4, a history of recalls and why there won't be one

Perspective: Apple's iPhone 4, a history of recalls and why there won't be one

Summary: Folks are calling for a recall of Apple's new iPhone because its antenna can be handicapped by a user's hand. If history's any indication, don't hold your breath. Here's why.


I've been watching the drama unfold about the supposed faulty design of the antenna of the new Apple iPhone 4 with great interest.

To date, I have yet to lay my paws on one. (Frankly, I've been so busy over at our science-y sister site SmartPlanet that I simply haven't had the time.)

To recap: The design of the newest iPhone includes a band of metal around its edge. It's not just for looks -- it's actually the phone's antenna, and reports have since been made attesting that holding the device a certain way -- the "grip of death," some have proclaimed -- will adversely affect service, including dropped calls and data.

From my perspective, the tech press has made what could be a legitimate oversight into a full-blown circus.

This is because:

  1. Smartphones are the most popular (read: mindshare) electronic gadget right now.
  2. Smartphones are the most personal electronic gadget.
  3. Apple is the most popular (again, mindshare), and divisive, technology company right now.
  4. The iPhone is the market leader in the smartphone space in many countries, including the U.S.
  5. Apple's tendency to deify its products makes it only more susceptible to a fall from grace.
  6. One of Apple's signature flourishes, a focus on industrial design, may be responsible.
  7. For once, AT&T -- whose poor 3G service has been criticized -- isn't responsible.
  8. The mere fact that this has become an "issue" could hurt the careful work Apple has done in crafting and framing its brand.

Ironically, that last reason is even more apparent because of the frame in which we view the iPhone's main rival, the Android smartphone. Google has been criticized for taking too much of an engineer's view with the phone and hindering simplicity and usability; now Apple's at fault for taking too much of a designer's view.

Nevertheless, we're talking about a phone here. A wildly successful one, mind you, but a smartphone nonetheless -- the kind of device that the majority of Americans don't even yet own.

But the antenna issue persists in the news cycle. Apple will reportedly hold a press conference tomorrow about it.

Some are calling for a partial recall. Some are calling for a full recall. Some are calling for CEO Steve Jobs' head.

But before we trot out our sharpened pitchforks and march to Cupertino, let's step back and take some perspective on the outrage that's being expressed versus the actual issue at hand.

Product recalls happen all the time, for a variety of reasons, but usually it's for consumer safety. The point of a recall is to return products to the manufacturer and limit the company's liability for negligence, which carries legal penalties. It's also a matter of publicity, which is often why you hear the term "voluntary recall" -- that is, not a compulsory recall prompted by the federal government, but of the company's own insistence.

Recalls are costly, but it depends on how you quantify the damage done to a brand in the mind of the consumer -- both from a quality assurance perspective, but also from one of trust. (That is, everyone screws up, but did you take responsibility?)

Recalls come about for all kinds of products, but the ones that make the headlines are cars (life-threatening), children's toys (ditto), pharmaceuticals (same), food (yep) and consumer electronics, which most often involves the recall of lithium-ion batteries, which overheat and cause fires.

In other words, life threatening.

A list of recent recalls, for perspective:

  • 2006: Dell, Toshiba, Lenovo, Panasonic, Sharp, Fujitsu, Sony and others recall laptop batteries because they can overheat and cause a fire.
  • 2008: Despite little chance of illness, the USDA recalls 143 million pounds of processed frozen beef that had not been inspected before slaughter.
  • 2009: Peanut butter products are recalled for salmonella contamination.
  • 2010: Toyota recalls several million vehicles because faulty accelerator pedals may cause runaway acceleration.

Despite the fact that the iPhone contains a lithium-ion battery, it is not life-threatening. There's a better chance that a dropped iPhone's shattered glass shell can injure you than its metal band. (Unless you believe mobile phones can give you cancer. If that's the case, the entire mobile industry is at risk.)

In the U.S., the Consumer Product Safety Commission handles consumer product recalls -- everything from bicycles and cribs to snow blowers and the light poles in stadiums. (Yes, even those.) Its official mission is to "protect consumers and families from products that pose a fire, electrical, chemical, or mechanical hazard or can injure children."

So that rules out an official recall. Would Apple, then, voluntarily recall its most popular (and lucrative) product in history?

Let's look at the history again. The only recent mobile phone recall I was able to dig up was LG's 2009 recall of 45,000 LG 150 phones in Canada, in which some phones on the production line fell out of certification for radio frequency exposure. The official statement said it posed no health risk, of course, but in one report the true reason comes out: excessive RF exposure can result in bodily damage.

The official U.S. Federal Communications Commission statement on radiation:

Biological effects can result from exposure to RF energy.  Biological effects that result from heating of tissue by RF energy are often referred to as "thermal" effects.  It has been known for many years that exposure to very high levels of RF radiation can be harmful due to the ability of RF energy to heat biological tissue rapidly.  This is the principle by which microwave ovens cook food.  Exposure to very high RF intensities can result in heating of biological tissue and an increase in body temperature.  Tissue damage in humans could occur during exposure to high RF levels because of the body's inability to cope with or dissipate the excessive heat that could be generated.  Two areas of the body, the eyes and the testes, are particularly vulnerable to RF heating because of the relative lack of available blood flow to dissipate the excess heat load.

At relatively low levels of exposure to RF radiation, i.e., levels lower than those that would produce significant heating; the evidence for production of harmful biological effects is ambiguous and unproven.

The decision is clear: since no one could prove or disprove the phone's potential for bodily harm -- and consumer fears were high about the potential for a connection between RF and cancer -- it was recalled.

The point I'm trying to illustrate here is that, in all of these examples -- compulsory and voluntary -- a consumer's health is potentially at risk.

And history shows that anything less than that -- such as performance issues -- has been met with "we're working on it" by virtually every electronics company. That includes Apple, whose own 27-inch iMac had production issues that were first met with delayed shipments and then a "bonus payment" that was really just to cover the shipping costs of returning a faulty system.

To be sure, Apple didn't ship nearly as many iMacs as it has new iPhones. The scale is incomparable. But in the end, the approach was simply: "Contact AppleCare."

Lots of folks expect answers during Apple's press conference tomorrow. But I'm afraid that they may be left wanting. If history's any indication, there will certainly be no recall, there might be a firmware upgrade and, above all, there will be a massive push to reassert the iPhone as the most coveted device on the planet.

UPDATE, 5:40PM ET: According to a Wall Street Journal report, I'm right.

Topics: Smartphones, Apple, Hardware, iPhone, Mobility

Andrew Nusca

About Andrew Nusca

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. During his tenure, he was the editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation.

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  • For being a supposedly market leader, Apple can afford a Recall

    The Recall is an affordable solution considering Apple's big wallets. It's also the best solution for All Consumers - every iPhone 4 owner would be relieved to have paid a lot for a phone that doesn't have known issues. A redesigned well-tested and solid iPhone 4 would be more than welcome for Consumer Reports to recommend as well as Consumer Rights Groups and Senator Schumer.

    Without an iPhone 4 Recall, Apple stocks will continue to nose dive into more serious disappointment.
    • Nose dive? How did I miss the nose dive?

      @zdnetviewer Oh wait, there wasn't one. And actually, it would be more likely to nose dive if they announced a recall. I wish they would do a recall. I have an iPhone 4 and can reproduce the antenna issue, although it hasn't resulted in any dropped calls for me.

      But, if you want to see the stock price impacted, tell stockholders that you are going to flush away 1.5 billion dollars. No one is returning their iPhones, there is a back log of orders. The worst thing Apple could do for their stock price is to do a recall.

      The worst thing they could do for their customers is NOT do a recall. But, I'm not holding my breath, because for whatever reasons you want to attribute it to, Apple customers are extremely loyal. Unfortunately, that loyalty may get them screwed this time. But, the'll keep coming back, just like a battered woman to her abusive husband. I'm not bashing Apple here (I have an iMac, Mac Book Pro, iPhone and iPad and I love them), but I wish that the faithful would put a little more pressure on Apple when they actually do something that sucks. And I think the iPhone 4 has real problems that need to be addressed, even though it is the best phone I have ever owned.
    • RE: Perspective: Apple's iPhone 4, a history of recalls and why there won't be one

      @zdnetviewer I couldn't disagree with you more. The most affordable solution would be to not recall anything. According to analysts' reports, Apple's seeing very little in the way of a dip in sales or an uptick in returns for the device. The only mess Apple's in is a publicity one. It has very little to do with the actual phone, which was reviewed quite well across the board.
  • Great Article

    Andrew, I def gotta give you props for making among the most unbiased, informative articles I've read on ZDNet in a while, ESPECIALLY regarding the iPhone.

    With regards to the issue at hand, I think that the best thing that Apple can do is to provide an opt-in but comprehensive solution, like providing free cases to everyone who's got one of the affected units. See, Apple seemed to try to place blame back upon the consumer, which is probably about the worst thing they could have done. If they took immediate responsibility and said "yes, we made a mistake, here's a free case" from the get-go, everyone would have won:

    -The owners would get a free case that cost Apple a quarter to manufacture, and the issue would be mitigated for the majority of owners.
    -Apple would be seen as taking care of the customer, the 'victim' of this mistake, for a relatively small price out of pocket (tax writeoff, too?). This reinforces the value of Apple products, but especially the holy grail: Applecare.
    -Customers have a cheap-ish case that they can feel good about because they got it for free, and will be much more likely to replace with a $30 designer case in a few months.

    I'm thinking that that's probably the best bet, but this "You're holding it wrong, and the software is displaying bars when it shouldn't" crap is what's really making most of the people I talk to mad.

    • RE: Perspective: Apple's iPhone 4, a history of recalls and why there won't be one

      @voyager529 Thank you, Joey. And thanks for leaving your take on what Apple should do.
  • Enjoyed this one. Nice analysis.


    First time in a few weeks I actually read a ZDNet article on the iPhone and didn't feel like it was a flame bate piece. Thank you.

    I don't own an iPhone 4 and don't plan on getting one. Whatever Apple does, I believe Apple's real problem is their poor handling of the PR side of things.

    I've find it hard to believe the Apple engineers would not have anticipated people holding the phone "the wrong way" was going to produce the signal loss.

    I think they (management, including Jobs) gambled on this one that most folks (including the press) would overlook this potentially major design drawback.

    Once it was clear that gamble was a loser, they should have cut their losses, taken a pro-active stance, offered the free bumper and a buyer beware attitude.

    For the last few weeks, to many of us, they looked a little foolish, if not arrogant. Maybe tomorrow will be the beginning of a turnaround.
  • Not necessarily a bad design

    If the wrap around antenna provides better reception, and it sounds like it does, eliminating the problem at the "gap" sounds like a minor problem. If Apple is leading the way in trying to make a better antenna, more power to them. I'm personally glad that Apple is a leader and not a follower like most companies that came out with their own smartphones after seeing the iPhone. I wish more companies were like Apple. Apple is pushing the envelope. All of the bashing is really weird. My idea of what a good designer is and what good business is, is a lot different than what I'm reading on this zdnet forum. It's like these people are some kind of quasi Ludites. Not totally against technology, but against taking chances and being different.
    Prime Detailer
    • Wrong

      @Prime Detailer People don't want to spend $2000 for beta-testing. I'm all for "pushing the envelope", but Apple should have done that during test phase.
  • xbox 360 RROD

    Didn't the xbox360 got recalled en mass a few years back due to the frequent read ring of dead? Correct me if i'm not wrong as i do not own as console
    • Xbox 360 recall

      @lord_lad@... That's correct. The problems were significant: failing hardware that led to freeze-ups, sound errors and checkerboard or pinstripe patterns on the screen during gameplay.

      And what did Microsoft do? Extended the warranty so it could replace them one at a time -- then told designers to go back to the drawing board for the next generation. No recall.
  • Seriously

    how many people have ANY USE for this thing? I certainly don't. I want a PHONE that I can TALK on, not take pictures with or attempt to read emails on, or text on. They ought to give up this whole idea. Nobody wants it but a few tech geeks.