Apple Talk: No one's perfect, not even Steve Jobs

Will the Apple chief's smooth performance polish off the iPhone 4 reception issue?

Will the Apple chief's smooth performance polish off the iPhone 4 reception issue?

As the dust begins to settle after the furore surrounding iPhone 4 reception, it's worth examining how Apple has acted to put the Antennagate row to rest, says Seb Janacek.

"We're not perfect," Steve Jobs told the assembled press, who had shuffled into a small theatre on the Apple campus last Friday morning.

They had been invited to hear the company's CEO respond to scathing criticism of both the iPhone 4's antenna problems and the company's failure to respond to the criticism. Was Apple's hubris about to be punished on stage before them?

In the end, Apple did just enough to satisfy the list of things it needed to do. It will hope its statements will quiet the vuvuzela-like droning from its critics in the industry and the press, and move the conversation onto something other than 'attenuation'.

As the world's media waited, the theatre's screen started playing a YouTube video of a fanboy singing a self-penned song about iPhone 4 attenuation problems, assuming it wasn't produced by Apple itself. It was an interesting opening gambit for a press conference hastily arranged to address Apple's biggest PR headache in recent times.

At least it showed that Apple was confident about the message it was about to deliver. The press conference played up the following key messages:

1. Yes, the iPhone 4 has a minor problem
Apple admitted reception through its external antenna can be an issue. But it argued that all smartphones have the same problem to varying degrees.

Jobs made the unusual and bold decision to prove this point courtesy of videos of rival phones experiencing the same issue.

In the past three or four days, I've watched a dozen or so YouTube clips of other phones dropping their reception when held in the so-called death grip.

There was no Antennagate, insisted Jobs. It was a challenge for the whole industry.

2. People love the iPhone 4
Apple says the iPhone 4 is sold by the truckload and return rates are very low. Jobs quoted some compelling figures:

  • More than three million devices sold in three weeks.
  • Only 0.55 per cent of AppleCare support calls are complaints about the reception problem.
  • iPhone 4 return rates are lower than for the iPhone 3G S - 1.7 per cent compared with six per cent.
  • Call drops are higher on iPhone 4 compared with the 3G S - but by less than one per cent.

As the man in the YouTube video sang: "If you don't want an iPhone 4, don't buy one." Seems no one is listening. Well over three million sold, according to Jobs.

I know people in two UK Apple Stores and they say not a single iPhone 4 has been returned since launch day for that store.

3. Apple has incredible testing facilities
Apple has the kind of facilities you imagine being rejected as sets for X-Men movies for being too fanciful.

Jobs claimed Apple had spent more than $100m on its...

...testing chambers. This assertion put paid to an interesting rumour that spread online to explain why this problem was never spotted.

It goes thus: The iPhone 4 'found' in the San Francisco bar was held inside a fake 3G S case. The case meant the phone wasn't susceptible to the reception problem. Apple's obsession with secrecy meant that all the iPhone 4 models being tested would have been trapped in cases. Nice theory but apparently not so.

4. Free cases for the iPhone 4
If you have bought an iPhone 4 you can order a free case for it. The case can be Apple's own bumper or one from an approved third party. Or you can return the smartphone.

A product recall was never on the cards. See point 2 above.

5. The media cannot be trusted
The Jobs response to a Bloomberg article criticising the iPhone 4: "A crock" and "total bullshit". Jobs bristled: "You guys love to talk".

Perhaps the coverage was overblown, maybe it was a firestorm - just an opportunity for a story starring one of the best-known global brands in a fine pickle. Perhaps if Jobs hadn't spoken so enthusiastically about the external antenna at the keynote this wouldn't have been half the story it was.

Personally, I think the most interesting part of the story was not the reception issue but Apple's failure to respond to the problem and risk damage to its premium brand.

6. Apple is sorry for this mess
Apple's message throughout was that the company were just a bunch of engineers who were committed to making great products for much-loved customers. The assertion that the company didn't want to hide behind a wall of PR folk was a little hard to swallow.

To reiterate my response to a reader comment in the previous article, my own view is that the iPhone 4 is not only the best phone I've used, it's probably the best bit of consumer technology I've owned.

The iPhone 4 is not a great phone if your criteria for a great phone is purely to make phone calls without getting cut off. However, it is a great smartphone, which offers a whole lot more.

My guess is that we've heard the end of this subject from Apple, at least in terms of official missives in response to Antennagate.

Perhaps at the launch of the iPhone 5, or whatever it's called, Jobs will make a joke about really testing the reception on this baby. One thing's for certain: the next iPhone will possess state-of-the-art reception.

The reaction to the iPhone 4 press conference was divided. Analysts are largely satisfied that the company did what it needed to do: it demonstrated the issue of death-grip attenuation is common in other phone models, issued an apology and provided a solution by offering users free bumper cases. Most decided that Jobs performed well, that he was forceful but showed empathy and expressed the right level of remorse.

Some areas of the press and blogosphere are happy because it means we can now talk about other things. Others are less than satisfied because kicking Apple generated good traffic. One thing's certain, the word 'attenuation' has enjoyed its 15 minutes of fame.

Finally, and most importantly for Apple, its users are continuing to vote with their wallets. The iPhone 4 continues to be a hit for Apple - which is the best kind of reception the iPhone 4 could have hoped for.