Apple's word of mouth challenge: Will Consumer Reports hamper iPhone 4's mojo?

The iPhone 4's thumbs down from Consumer Reports is a major blow. Hopefully, Apple will recognize the significance of it and start working to fix not only the antenna problem but also its lack-of-response to it.
Written by Sam Diaz, Inactive

It's one thing for a blogger like me to go on these rants about the shortcomings of the iPhone 4. But when Consumer Reports, which has the power to drive or halt buying decisions with its recommendations, announces that it cannot recommend the iPhone 4 because of the device's antenna issues, it carries a lot of weight with mainstream consumers.

Hardcore iPhone fans can try as much as they'd like to discredit the Consumer Reports findings - and some are already doing just that - but they'll have a hard time convincing mainstream consumers that CR is turning this into something more than it is. After all, this isn't just some thumbs-down from a tech blogger who had a bad experience with the iPhone. This is Consumer Reports - and that matters.

Yes, sales of the iPhone 4 were strong right out of the gate - but it's important to note that 77 percent of those initial sales were upgrades by existing iPhone owners. And many of those folks were likely early-adopter Apple fans who probably would have bought the phone even if it only handled smoke-signal communications. After all, dropped calls are no big deal when your friends see you carrying around the latest cool gadget, right?

But what about everyone else, the regular folks who don't place pre-orders or spend the night outside Apple stores, those who care about the quality of the service and refuse to pay even more money to fix a problem that should have been addressed before the product was sold in the first place? Many of those people are the same ones that will take their time researching and comparing products - starting with what Consumer Reports had to say. The magazine has a stellar reputation of testing products and for some, the magazine's word is gospel. Its ratings and rankings can spread like word-of-mouth wildfire among mainstream consumers.

But this isn't just CR running some tests on a new device. This is also about CR challenging Apple's response and explanation of the antenna issue. From the CR post:

Our findings call into question the recent claim by Apple that the iPhone 4's signal-strength issues were largely an optical illusion caused by faulty software that "mistakenly displays 2 more bars than it should for a given signal strength." The tests also indicate that AT&T's network might not be the primary suspect in the iPhone 4's much-reported signal woes.

Apple tends to take a no-response position when the criticisms surface. That's just the Apple way of doing things. But the company may not be able to ignore this one. The CR report dominated headlines today - and not just on Techmeme and other tech blogs. The CR news went mainstream, which means that those non-techie customers who may have been on the fence have now been influenced. The on-air hosts on Bloomberg television even went so far as to compare it to the Toyota debacle. Ouch. And many of you thought my comparison of the device to Windows Vista last week was brutal.

What's funny, though, is that Consumer Reports wants to give the iPhone 4 a glowing recommendation. It was practically giddy about other new features on the device - but just couldn't get past the antenna issue. If I'm a consumer doing some research, the fact that CR likes the device so much but still can't recommend it speaks volumes more than just a thumbs-down.

Consumer Reports seems willing to recommend the iPhone 4 later (that's how well-liked it was) but "Apple needs to come up with a permanent—and free—fix for the antenna problem before we can recommend the iPhone 4."

So the ball is back in Apple's court. Instead of selling consumers a $30 case to "fix" the problem, maybe iPhone 4 should be repackaged to include a case, along with a warning that failure to use the case could result in a poor signal for the phone. Maybe it should invite iPhone 4 owners in for a free case or issue refunds to those who've already purchased them.

Better yet, maybe it's time for a product recall so Apple can start righting the wrongs that have come from this hardware design problem.

Apple needs to step up and start making some fixes soon - and not just the antenna issues on the iPhone 4 but some perception issues, as well.  Otherwise, all of this inaction by Apple - as well as the CR snub - will likely make its way into legal documents as part of lawsuits already being filed.

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