Apple Talk: Apple loses friends with iPhone PR blunders

The iPhone 4's 'death grip' reception issue is less of a problem than Apple's handling of it...

The iPhone 4's 'death grip' reception issue is less of a problem than Apple's handling of it...

Apple's increasingly desperate attempts to manage the growing furore about iPhone 4 reception issues are doing it more harm than good, says Seb Janacek.

The row about problems with the iPhone 4's reception surround the smartphone's much vaunted external aerial, which also serves as a key structural component. Gripping the aerial in a certain way causes the signal to diminish and drop calls.

Apple's PR response has been dreadful. For a company that trades so much on its brand and the goodwill associated with its products, Apple's stance has to be a real concern. Unfortunately, there's something in the company's DNA that refuses a rethink.

The company's initial response was to suggest that all phones suffered from this attenuation problem. I counted 10 phones in my Drawer of Mobile Phones Past - which really should be recycled. I can't recall ever noticing it with those devices. One of them was an iPhone 3G.

After the complaints started flooding in, Apple said in a statement: "Gripping any mobile phone will result in some attenuation of its antenna performance, with certain places being worse than others depending on the placement of the antennas.

iPhone 4's stainless steel band

The stainless steel band that wraps around the iPhone 4 is accused of causing signal upsets
(Photo credit: Apple)

"This is a fact of life for every wireless phone. If you ever experience this on your iPhone 4, avoid gripping it in the lower left corner in a way that covers both sides of the black strip in the metal band, or simply use one of many available cases."

Perhaps one of the cases it manufactures and sells?

Another Apple customer who complained to Steve Jobs was reportedly told to, "Just avoid holding it in that way".

In an statement on 2 July entitled 'Letter from Apple Regarding iPhone 4' the company said it was 'stunned' to discover that the problem was actually to do with the phone's visual representation of signal strength and vowed to remedy this failing with a software fix.

Despite Apple's protestations, the attenuation problem remains well documented for many users. Irrespective of the presentation, the fact remains that the iPhone cuts off signal access when the device is held in a certain way.

In its letter, Apple added that it had tested and retested the iPhone 4 in its labs and found that the reception was better than on any previous iPhone. The letter reminded its most dissatisfied customers that they could return undamaged phones within 30 days of purchase for a refund.

Meanwhile, Apple was this week accused of deleting threads on its own support forums that link to a report published by a consumer organisation, which criticised the iPhone's reception.

Consumer Reports had originally said there was no problem with the device's antenna before reversing its position after more testing. Apple's decision to remove the threads highlights its concerns about...

...the reception complaints and its ham-fisted handling of the whole issue.

When Greenpeace attacked Apple for its reputation on environmental issues, the company responded in the best possible way by improving its manufacturing standards.

Now it is one of the global tech leaders in sustainable technology manufacturing, according to Greenpeace's own standards. Apple regularly cites the sustainability of its products' materials in its marketing.

Apple should have shown a little humility from the offset of the iPhone 4 reception problems, acknowledged the problem, apologised and promised to investigate the issue immediately.

Many commentators have suggested the company should offer free iPhone Bumpers to those experiencing the problem. Bumpers are $29 plastic strips sold by Apple, which help protect the phone and have been shown to solve the attenuation problem.

iphone 4 experiencing reception issues

The iPhone 4 has been clouded in talk of reception issues since its launch
(Photo credit: James Martin/CNET)

This suggestion seems a good solution. Bumpers are, after all, nothing more than mass-produced plastic rings lacking any moving parts. There'd be a hit on profits but it's a small price to pay compared with the potential damage the company's actions are having on its brand.

Apple is facing a PR crisis with hundreds of YouTube clips of users demonstrating the problem. Meanwhile, the company's competitors are having a field day, with both Nokia and Motorola accusing the iPhone of having a 'death grip'.

During its Droid X launch, Motorola's Facebook page said: "Droid X does more. Like make calls no matter which way you hold it."

The issue is likely to hit Apple's profits. In a note to investors this week, Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster predicted that a potential fix from the Cupertino company could reduce its operating income by one per cent.

However, Munster didn't think the issue will affect the company significantly. He wrote: "While the issue has gained significant traction in the press, the reality is we estimate this problem periodically affects 25 per cent of iPhone 4 users given the fix is easy - a case for the iPhone - and 75 per cent of customers choose to use a case anyway."

The problem is that the iPhone 4 is Apple's big thing right now and the attenuation problem is both ugly and embarrassing - two traits Apple is used to accusing rival products of possessing.

With this badly managed PR exercise, Apple is drawing the worst kind of attention to itself and giving the company's critics all the ammunition they need to accuse it of being arrogant and out of touch. In fact, Apple's doing all the hard work for them.

In the final analysis, Apple is trying to protect its marketing rather than looking after its customers. It's an ugly moment for the brand.