Antennagate: it's time for Apple to Behave Different

The so-called Antennagate scandal looks like running for a while yet. We already knew that the iPhone 4’s antenna design problem was predictable, because someone predicted it.
Written by Jack Schofield, Contributor

The so-called Antennagate scandal looks like running for a while yet. We already knew that the iPhone 4’s antenna design problem was predictable, because someone predicted it. Further, according to the Bloomberg news agency, Apple knew it had a problem long before that, because: “Last year, Ruben Caballero, a senior engineer and antenna expert, informed Apple’s management the device’s design may hurt reception, said the person, who is not authorized to speak on Apple’s behalf and asked not to be identified.”

Now well-known Apple tracker John Gruber, who blogs at Daring Fireball, has suggested that Apple knew two years ago. In Papermaster and That Damn Antenna, Gruber’s parting shot is:

One last tidbit from an informed source: the bug on the “touching it wrong” signal loss issue was filed two years ago. This is not a problem they didn’t catch, or caught too late. So, on the one hand, clearly the fundamental antenna design predated Papermaster’s time at the company. But on the other hand, there was plenty of time to find a solution to the problem. I.e., it’s not that Apple should not have used an external antenna. It’s that it should have been even better.

The timing is of some interest because of what Gruber calls “Mark Papermaster’s ouster from Apple in the wake of Antennagate”. Papermaster joined Apple 16 months ago, after 25 years at IBM, so he wasn’t responsible for the choice of an external antenna design. From his rapid departure, we might surmise that he was held responsible for the flaw not being fixed, but we don’t actually know this. Apple is a secretive company and doesn’t discuss design issues with the outside world. The whole process is about providing rabbits for principal magician Steve Jobs to pull out of his metaphorical hat.

Steve Jobs had already admitted that Apple knew about the problem, but had decided not to fix it. Gruber reports that at the hastily convened press conference about the issue, Jobs said:

“We tested it. We knew that if you gripped it in a certain way, the bars are going to go down a little bit, just like every smartphone. We didn’t think it’d be a big problem, because every smartphone has this issue.”

Here, Jobs is being somewhat economical with the truth. You can indeed hold just about any phone so that your hand attenuates the signal. But in the iPhone 4’s case, you can get a different kind of signal loss by bridging the gap in the antennas on the bottom left corner with your skin. That’s precisely why “bumpers” are offered as a solution.

Also, with the iPhone, there was yet another problem: the software was badly flawed at converting the signal strength into a read-out in bars. The iPhone 4 made the reception look better than it was, which could make the resulting drop look worse than it was. Without the software flaw, users might have been less bothered by the hardware flaw.

Bad press here

Still, most of the bad press that Apple has had over antennagate is probably down to the way it has handled the problem. Steve Jobs’s initial mantra, Hold Different, went down badly because it looked like denial. The July 16 press conference made things worse because Jobs appeared to be still in denial, and because he attacked rival phones that don’t, as a matter of fact, have the antenna-bridging problem.

In Newsweek, Daniel Lyons (aka Fake Steve Jobs) wrote of Apple’s Rotten Response. At Slate, Farhad Manjoo summed it up with Here’s Your Free Case, Jerk. (Like me, they followed the event online. Perhaps it was different if you were there, but Jobs’s famous Reality Distortion Field didn’t reach us.)

The press conference gave rival phone suppliers a platform from which to attack, creating even more bad press for Apple. RIM’s co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie responded that “Apple's attempt to draw RIM into Apple's self-made debacle is unacceptable. Apple's claims about RIM products appear to be deliberate attempts to distort the public's understanding of an antenna design issue and to deflect attention from Apple's difficult situation.” They concluded:

“Apple clearly made certain design decisions and it should take responsibility for these decisions rather than trying to draw RIM and others into a situation that relates specifically to Apple.”

Apple, like a spoilt child, continued down the path of belligerent denial, posting a Video of Competitors to illustrate an “industry problem”, then withdrawing it. Someone must finally have realised that it was doing Apple’s image more harm than good.

Some think the whole debacle has had a damaging effect, as summed up in an Observer headline: Apple's self-inflicted bruises take the shine off its untouchable brand. The tarnishing goes beyond the iPhone 4, because flaws in other products are now more likely to attract publicity than they did before. Remember, journalism is a fashion industry.

It’s irrelevant whether or not any of these stories is accurate or fair. The point is that it’s becoming increasingly acceptable to knock Apple.

Over the past decade, the mainstream press has generally given Apple a free, sometimes embarrassingly easy, ride. Everybody loves a plucky underdog, and The Second Coming of a Steve Jobs to rescue a defeated and struggling Apple -- once the epitome of the American Dream -- was a good story.

Today, Apple is America’s second biggest company by market capitalisation, and is extremely rich. (It has more than $40 billion in readies.) It is also accumulating market power through the remarkable commercial success of its iPods, iPhones, iPads, iTunes and App Store, and it’s starting to use that power against things it doesn’t like. (Adobe Flash is currently in the firing line.) Plucky underdog it ain’t.

Apple once embraced and extended IBM’s famous slogan, Think, to make its own ungrammatical version: Think Different. It might now be a good time to put up another version around the Apple campus: Behave Different. The time for arrogance is over.

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