/>
X
Innovation

iPhone 4 debacle gives Apple's competitors a chance ... but will they take it?

The iPhone 4 is a tremendous gadget. It's quite possibly the best smartphone ever made. In terms of the Retina Display screen, the dual camera FaceTime feature, and the excellent battery life it's definitely three steps ahead of the competition. But it has a weakness, an Achilles' heel, in that the innovative antenna design that makes use of the handset's stainless steel chassis can cause signal degradation if held a certain way (the wrong way?) - specifically, the grip of death style.

The iPhone 4 is a tremendous gadget. It's quite possibly the best smartphone ever made. In terms of the Retina Display screen, the dual camera FaceTime feature, and the excellent battery life it's definitely three steps ahead of the competition. But it has a weakness, an Achilles' heel, in that the innovative antenna design that makes use of the handset's stainless steel chassis can cause signal degradation if held a certain way (the wrong way?) - specifically, the grip of death style.

Will Apple's competitors in the handset market start exploiting this weakness? Can they?

The day before the official launch of the iPhone it quickly became clear (thanks to reports from some of those who received their handsets early) that there was an issue with the iPhone 4 antenna. Touch the join in the antenna band on the handset's lower-left side and the signal display bars crash down quicker than a game of Jenga in an earthquake.  Sure, it can be argued that if users refrain from touching that part of the chassis, then the problem will go away. Some have likened the issue to someone cupping their hand over the screen and claiming that the display doesn't work. My problem with this sort of dismissive remark is that a drop in signal strength to touching a random spot on the phone's chassis is not really as obvious as not being able to use the screen because your hand is over it. It's not really obvious that the chassis is the antenna. 

Over the past few weeks that this issue has been brewing for, it's also been quite entertaining to watch the Apple faithful circle the wagons around the crippled iPhone. First, the issue didn't exist, then it was very limited. Now, finally, even the more rabid iPhone fan can't fail but acknowledge that not only does the problem exist, but that it's pretty serious.

Then there's the press. I won't bother covering it here, just point out that it's bad news for a product (any product, let alone a flagship one) when Consumer Reports comes out with a statement saying that it cannot recommend it:

It's official. Consumer Reports' engineers have just completed testing the iPhone 4, and have confirmed that there is a problem with its reception. When your finger or hand touches a spot on the phone's lower left side—an easy thing, especially for lefties—the signal can significantly degrade enough to cause you to lose your connection altogether if you're in an area with a weak signal. Due to this problem, we can't recommend the iPhone 4.

Now, signal issues aren't going to put off the hardened fanboy from still defending the iPhone 4 to the end. Heck, there are those out there who'd buy it and hold it up to their ears if it were on fire. But Apple's market now extends well beyond that inner circle of fanboys. Apple now relies on consumers who come to Apple products expecting them to offer something above and beyond what other makers offer. These people don't expect what has been sold to them as a flagship handset from a premium brand name to experience such an obvious weakness. It's not cool to have a device with such an obvious flaw, one that others can point out to you and use to ridicule your choices. The current solutions to the issue (nail polish, duct tape, rubber bumpers) are also far from cool and stylish. Seriously, who's going to think it's cool to start plastering their new iPhone with duct tape?

This antenna mess also gives weight to the anti-Apple fanboys. Those who claim that Apple puts style over function finally have all the ammo and proof they need. When it comes to a handset, no part is as important as the antenna, and Apple's clearly messed it up on the iPhone 4. It's perfect backup to the popular idea that Apple has good designers, but lousy engineers. Put simply, it's an own goal of epic proportions.

But the real story hers isn't the design flaw issue. That sort of thug happens, and even though Apple is big, and is backed by stacks of cash, it's still not immune to making mistakes. That's the nature of tech. No, the real story here is how badly Apple has handled this issue. First, there was a stonewalling, then that alleged missive from Steve Jobs to an iPhone 4 owner telling them not to "hold it that way." Then we get that "letter to iPhone 4 owners" which trumpeted the handset as a marvel of engineering perfection, made excuses that the issues were actually phantom and down to the signal being shown by the handset as stronger than it actually is and that somehow - maybe Jedi style - waving your hand over the device fixes this. No folks, it's not a handset issue, it was AT&T all along. Owners were told that it was all down to software algorithms controlling the number of reception bars displayed and Apple went as far as promising a fix to re-jig the display (a fix that kinda reminds me of that Spinal Tap guitar amp going up to 11 gag). Consumer Reports is not convinced by this explanation either:

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.

Following that letter, we've seen more stonewalling. Well, expect for the deleting of critical threads over on Apple's discussion forum.

Then there are those rubber bumpers. I can't shake the fact out of my head that never before has Apple announced a case or other protective mechanism for an iPhone (or for that matter, iPod or any other device) during am keynote speech. Sure, Apple has made then odd case, like those socks, for things, but they've been incidental. Doesn't it strike anyone else as a huge coincidence that these rubber condoms when fitted actually fix this whole antenna problem (at a low, low price of $30!)? I mean, they almost seem designed for that purpose. It's as though Apple knew about this problem before launch and came up with a cheap and cheerful (cheap for Apple at any rate) way of fixing it and either decided to artificially jack the price of these rubber bands up in order to capitalize on the problem, or to make them seem like Apple was being ultra generous when it came time to handing them out for free to disgruntled owners. I'm speculating here, but as a product announced pre-launch, those bumpers were awfully suspicious, especially given since these bumpers do little to actually protect the device from impact damage. So far, there's no sign of Apple handing these bumpers out to screaming owners, but handing them out at this early stage would be an admission that the iPhone 4 was flawed.

This all leaves Apple vulnerable. The company has built up a reputation based on quality and created a niche of "luxury" consumer electronics. But this antenna issue is a serious chink it its armor. People who are seeing this problem are already disgruntled, and the longer they live with the problem, the worse that's going to get. But what's worse is that flaws like this can eat away at the confidence consumers have in a product. Every time a call is dropped or data connection doesn't work, people will be wondering if the antenna (and ultimately, Apple) is to blame, much in the same way people see all Windows OS crashes as a Windows/Microsoft problem, no matter what the real cause. This sort of feeling is toxic, after all, just look at what happened to Microsoft's Vista OS. How a company handles a bad situation makes all the difference (remember Kryptonite?).

This gives other handsets vendors a window of opportunity while Apple is vulnerable. This is their chance to get one over on Apple, after all, Apple took advantage of the perceived shortcomings of Vista and used that mercilessly.

The big name handset vendors lagging behind Apple have a great opportunity ...

Editorial standards

Related

The 21 best Black Friday deals under $30 ahead of Cyber Monday
Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K

The 21 best Black Friday deals under $30 ahead of Cyber Monday

The 62 best Black Friday deals at Costco ahead of Cyber Monday
LG 65" Class - QNED80 Series

The 62 best Black Friday deals at Costco ahead of Cyber Monday

The 52 best Black Friday deals on Amazon ahead of Cyber Monday
Image of Amazon Echo Show 8 on a wooden table in front of a person cooking and folding pastry dough.

The 52 best Black Friday deals on Amazon ahead of Cyber Monday