Perspective: Apple's iPhone 4, a history of recalls and why there won't be one

Folks are calling for a recall of Apple's new iPhone because its antenna can be handicapped by a user's hand. If history's any indication, don't hold your breath. Here's why.

I've been watching the drama unfold about the supposed faulty design of the antenna of the new Apple iPhone 4 with great interest.

To date, I have yet to lay my paws on one. (Frankly, I've been so busy over at our science-y sister site SmartPlanet that I simply haven't had the time.)

To recap: The design of the newest iPhone includes a band of metal around its edge. It's not just for looks -- it's actually the phone's antenna, and reports have since been made attesting that holding the device a certain way -- the "grip of death," some have proclaimed -- will adversely affect service, including dropped calls and data.

From my perspective, the tech press has made what could be a legitimate oversight into a full-blown circus.

This is because:

  1. Smartphones are the most popular (read: mindshare) electronic gadget right now.
  2. Smartphones are the most personal electronic gadget.
  3. Apple is the most popular (again, mindshare), and divisive, technology company right now.
  4. The iPhone is the market leader in the smartphone space in many countries, including the U.S.
  5. Apple's tendency to deify its products makes it only more susceptible to a fall from grace.
  6. One of Apple's signature flourishes, a focus on industrial design, may be responsible.
  7. For once, AT&T -- whose poor 3G service has been criticized -- isn't responsible.
  8. The mere fact that this has become an "issue" could hurt the careful work Apple has done in crafting and framing its brand.

Ironically, that last reason is even more apparent because of the frame in which we view the iPhone's main rival, the Android smartphone. Google has been criticized for taking too much of an engineer's view with the phone and hindering simplicity and usability; now Apple's at fault for taking too much of a designer's view.

Nevertheless, we're talking about a phone here. A wildly successful one, mind you, but a smartphone nonetheless -- the kind of device that the majority of Americans don't even yet own.

But the antenna issue persists in the news cycle. Apple will reportedly hold a press conference tomorrow about it.

Some are calling for a partial recall. Some are calling for a full recall. Some are calling for CEO Steve Jobs' head.

But before we trot out our sharpened pitchforks and march to Cupertino, let's step back and take some perspective on the outrage that's being expressed versus the actual issue at hand.

Product recalls happen all the time, for a variety of reasons, but usually it's for consumer safety. The point of a recall is to return products to the manufacturer and limit the company's liability for negligence, which carries legal penalties. It's also a matter of publicity, which is often why you hear the term "voluntary recall" -- that is, not a compulsory recall prompted by the federal government, but of the company's own insistence.

Recalls are costly, but it depends on how you quantify the damage done to a brand in the mind of the consumer -- both from a quality assurance perspective, but also from one of trust. (That is, everyone screws up, but did you take responsibility?)

Recalls come about for all kinds of products, but the ones that make the headlines are cars (life-threatening), children's toys (ditto), pharmaceuticals (same), food (yep) and consumer electronics, which most often involves the recall of lithium-ion batteries, which overheat and cause fires.

In other words, life threatening.

A list of recent recalls, for perspective:

  • 2006: Dell, Toshiba, Lenovo, Panasonic, Sharp, Fujitsu, Sony and others recall laptop batteries because they can overheat and cause a fire.
  • 2008: Despite little chance of illness, the USDA recalls 143 million pounds of processed frozen beef that had not been inspected before slaughter.
  • 2009: Peanut butter products are recalled for salmonella contamination.
  • 2010: Toyota recalls several million vehicles because faulty accelerator pedals may cause runaway acceleration.

Despite the fact that the iPhone contains a lithium-ion battery, it is not life-threatening. There's a better chance that a dropped iPhone's shattered glass shell can injure you than its metal band. (Unless you believe mobile phones can give you cancer. If that's the case, the entire mobile industry is at risk.)

In the U.S., the Consumer Product Safety Commission handles consumer product recalls -- everything from bicycles and cribs to snow blowers and the light poles in stadiums. (Yes, even those.) Its official mission is to "protect consumers and families from products that pose a fire, electrical, chemical, or mechanical hazard or can injure children."

So that rules out an official recall. Would Apple, then, voluntarily recall its most popular (and lucrative) product in history?

Let's look at the history again. The only recent mobile phone recall I was able to dig up was LG's 2009 recall of 45,000 LG 150 phones in Canada, in which some phones on the production line fell out of certification for radio frequency exposure. The official statement said it posed no health risk, of course, but in one report the true reason comes out: excessive RF exposure can result in bodily damage.

The official U.S. Federal Communications Commission statement on radiation:

Biological effects can result from exposure to RF energy.  Biological effects that result from heating of tissue by RF energy are often referred to as "thermal" effects.  It has been known for many years that exposure to very high levels of RF radiation can be harmful due to the ability of RF energy to heat biological tissue rapidly.  This is the principle by which microwave ovens cook food.  Exposure to very high RF intensities can result in heating of biological tissue and an increase in body temperature.  Tissue damage in humans could occur during exposure to high RF levels because of the body's inability to cope with or dissipate the excessive heat that could be generated.  Two areas of the body, the eyes and the testes, are particularly vulnerable to RF heating because of the relative lack of available blood flow to dissipate the excess heat load.

At relatively low levels of exposure to RF radiation, i.e., levels lower than those that would produce significant heating; the evidence for production of harmful biological effects is ambiguous and unproven.

The decision is clear: since no one could prove or disprove the phone's potential for bodily harm -- and consumer fears were high about the potential for a connection between RF and cancer -- it was recalled.

The point I'm trying to illustrate here is that, in all of these examples -- compulsory and voluntary -- a consumer's health is potentially at risk.

And history shows that anything less than that -- such as performance issues -- has been met with "we're working on it" by virtually every electronics company. That includes Apple, whose own 27-inch iMac had production issues that were first met with delayed shipments and then a "bonus payment" that was really just to cover the shipping costs of returning a faulty system.

To be sure, Apple didn't ship nearly as many iMacs as it has new iPhones. The scale is incomparable. But in the end, the approach was simply: "Contact AppleCare."

Lots of folks expect answers during Apple's press conference tomorrow. But I'm afraid that they may be left wanting. If history's any indication, there will certainly be no recall, there might be a firmware upgrade and, above all, there will be a massive push to reassert the iPhone as the most coveted device on the planet.

UPDATE, 5:40PM ET: According to a Wall Street Journal report, I'm right.