At this point, It almost seems like a bad made-for-TV-movie. “Not Without My Bumper Case: The iPhone 4 Story” began with leaked photos and tales of a drunk engineer leaving a secret prototype in a bar. And after months of twists and turns (including a boffo scene where a SWAT team broke down a door) it’s taken us to a hastily-organized 1 PM Eastern Time press conference at the Cupertino campus, where Apple will address the phone’s problems.
So I guess Consumer Reports’ iPhone 4 coverage this week was the final straw for Apple. The magazine, for its part, was very thorough: they first announced that they couldn’t recommend the iPhone 4 to its users, and then announced that it was the highest-scoring phone they’ve ever tested.
Ah. Well, that clears that up, then.
No, no. Consumer Reports’ reviews are always very Spock-like. That’s a good thing and a bad thing. It means that they like charts and bullet points and testing methods and people in lab coats holding clipboards and checking things off. You want data? They can give you freakin’ data. The bad part: “damn you and your Vulcan logic…an ability to quantify something via cold logic doesn’t equate an ability to understand it!!
My own vote on the iPhone 4 and its troubles was cast after my formal review. Apple sent me some loaner hardware to try out. I tested it very thoroughly and talked to a lot of users about their personal experiences. I was aware of every problem with the iPhone 4…and still, I didn’t choose to cancel my order for my own hardware.
For those of you tuning in late, the big-marquee problem with the iPhone 4 is with its reception. The moment I unboxed the iPhone and held it in my hand, I noticed something odd: bars of coverage would sometimes slowly drain away down to zero. It was so odd that I put the iPhone 4 down on the table next to my iPhone 3GS so that I could photograph the difference in displayed reception but as soon as I got my shot framed just right, zooop! the iPhone 4 would be back to full strength.
Eventually, I realized that it happened whenever I held the iPhone snugly in my left hand. If the skin of my hand was pressed against the lower-left corner of the device, I’d lose signal. Shift the phone just a little, and they came back.
Everyone’s attention immediately focused on the iPhone 4’s Bold New Antenna Design. The metal band around the phone isn’t just decorative. It’s a stainless steel frame that supports all of the phone’s components, and two of its sections are, in fact, antennas. It appeared that bridging the gap that separated those two antennas did something to the antenna’s performance.
So: defective antenna, right?
I don’t really know.
Neither does anybody else.
It’s an obvious conclusion but only Apple understands exactly how that antenna is tuned and how the phone’s firmware is supposed to handle reception issues. There are a lot of possible explanations for what’s happening.
Best-case possibility: like all phones, the antenna’s performance is influenced by what part of your hand is covering which part of the device. But unlike previous iPhones, the bit of software that tells the iPhone “Oh, we’ve just lost some signal…switch to this other channel, where the signal will probably be clearer” isn’t working properly. It’s like an automatic transmission that doesn’t realize it’s time to go into a higher gear. Furthermore, you won’t even notice the problem unless you’re already in an area with weak coverage. Solution: release an update to the firmware.
Worst-case: Bridging the gap turns the antenna from a Functional Antenna to a Decorative Piece Of Stainless Steel. It’s simply not possible to get a signal with the phone held that way. Solution: redesign the hardware.
This uncertainty is why I scoffed at reports last week from Noted PR Professionals who insisted that a hardware recall of the iPhone 4 is “inevitable.” Many of these pros don’t even work in technology.
I think the chances of Apple announcing a recall — or even announcing a voluntary “bring your iPhone 4 to any Apple Store and we’ll swap it out” program — are slim. It declares boldly and clearly and unequivocally “We shipped a defective product” and invites many MANY longterm and ongoing legal and PR problems for the company and the brand.
With such a severe downside, they’d only do a recall if they have to. And at the moment, it’s unclear that they actually have to.
There’s an important factor missing from Apple’s iPhone 4 scandale that separates it from the BP oil disaster or the freespirited nature of Toyota’s accellerator system: there’s no video of a baby dolphin coated in iPhone 4’s, slowly and adorably drowning despite desperate attempts to save its life. There’s no video of a crushed family crossover vehicle that raced straight into a bridge abutment because of a maniacal iPhone 4.
In a nutshell: the antenna issue is real and the “effect” (for lack of a better word) of bridging the two antennas is easy to replicate. But it’s a funny thing: we’re not seeing massive number of users complaining that they’re having problems with their iPhones. Instead, it’s an insanely well-selling phone. Even with the bad press in full swing, you’d have to wait weeks for your online order to be fulfilled.
And yes, while some folks are reporting that their iPhone 4s are dropping lot of calls, AT&T’s historically bad network performance helps Apple for once. Whoopi Goldberg can go on The View and rant about how her new iPhone frustrated her so badly that she chucked it out the window of her car. But (sad to say) that’s the tale of using an iPhone in New York City. Even users of other phones on other networks can relate to the problem of a call that mysteriously cuts off for no reason.
Mind you, I’m not saying that iPhone 4 hardware issues are imaginary. Just that the complaint “my new iPhone dropped my call” doesn’t ipso facto equate to “my new iPhone is defective.” More to the point: it doesn’t create the sense of urgency of disaster that would compel a big company to just recall a product without knowing for a gold-plated fact that it was defective.
Again: Toyota and BP needed to stop all of those videos of crashed cars and oil-slicked birds and crying people as soon as you possibly can, regardless of the cost. But Apple isn’t under that sort of pressure.
I have zero insider information…but here’s how I think today’s press conference will go:
- Apple will acknowledge all of the bad press. They will reiterate the “we were using the wrong formula for calculating bars of coverage; we’ve just released an update to fix that” announcement they made a week ago.
- They will specifically fault Consumer Reports’ conclusions. While stopping short of calling it poppycock, Apple will be very specific in explaining parts of the test protocol which they feel were poorly conceived or implemented.
- Apple will point out how many millions of iPhone 4’s they’ve sold, and how very few complaints they’ve received from actual users.
- Apple will say that they’re always interested in improving their products just as a general rule. They will point out that every product they’ve released has been followed up by a firmware update a few days, weeks, or months later, and perhaps even a Revision B hardware after they’ve collect data from millions and millions of user experiences over many months. Not because the original model was defective, but just to make a perfect device even perfect-er. They’ll say that they’re continuing to collect data about the problems that some of these users may or may not be having, and that they’ll make adjustments if they feel that’s necessary.
- While they have no plans to recall the iPhone 4, if any customer is having any problems, as always they can come into any of their (hugely successful) Apple Stores and talk to a Genius…at no charge, as always. Apple is top-rated for their customer service.
- (And now we start steering the ship away from “we might have a problem with our hardware.”) Apple will point out that the iPhone 4’s reception is actually far better than the iPhone 3GS, and will back this up with hard data.
- They will point out all of the other fantastic features of the iPhone 4: the screen, FaceTime (expect numbers on just how many people have been using it), the faster processor, maybe even data on the faster 3G download speeds (up to 4x improvement) along with improved WiFi and GPS (to underscore the “Wow, we have some awesome radios in this device and they all work great” meme).
20 minutes and done.
To sum up: no recall and no free bumper cases (putting the iPhone 4 in any sort of case completely solves the antenna problem). There will be no admission of any kind that Apple did anything wrong in the design of the iPhone 4. The only nod in that direction will be that it’s the nature of new technology that no matter how carefully and thoroughly you test it, you will always find ways of improving it later on and that any future firmware or hardware revisions to the iPhone 4 will be just par for the course.
I think the timing of this press conference is telling: it takes place at 1 PM Eastern time, which gives media and analysts plenty of time to get our stories out and the stock market plenty of time to react. If they were announcing a recall (or anything drastic) they probably would have timed it for 3 or 4 Pacific time…after trading closes, when the market would have 48 hours to fully digest the news and its implications, and avoiding a massive “We’d better sell some shares before everybody else sells some of their shares and drives the price down” response.
1 PM suggests a message of “The iPhone 4 is awesome, this is more of a PR problem than a hardware problem…and once we conclude this press conference, people will agree with those two statements.”
The fact that their doing this as a media event instead of just issuing a press release also indicates optimism on Apple’s part. A company would not, not not make a choice to let people have high-definition video of an executive saying “we screwed up.”
There’s another reason why Apple won’t do anything drastic unless they absolutely have to: their customer service truly is phenomenal. Individual Apple Stores have immense latitude when it comes to making customers happy. If a Genius feels as though you need to get your iPhone swapped out, they can just go ahead and do that without even checking with a manager.
I think this is a factor in how Apple chooses to respond to the situation. If — if — the antenna issue is a physical problem that requires a hardware redesign and the release of Revision B hardware, a showy, lawsuit-inviting PR disaster of a recall won’t be necessary. Any customer who is actually unsatisfied with their iPhone will come in to their local Store and complain. The Genius will say “Gosh, that’s too bad” and then swap out their hardware. If there’s no revised hardware, they’ll send them out with a free case.
I reiterate: this is just a guess. Apple simply knows that there are ways to make iPhone 4 users happy without having to issue a formal recall.
Instead of a huge breaking news story (“Apple recalls defective hardware! Run back to the Apple Store with your hellspawn phone!”) they can twist it into thousands of positive stories: “I’d been having problems with my iPhone for weeks. But the Store just swapped it for a brand-new phone, no questions asked. Remember when I had all those dead pixels on my Blackberry, and the guy at the phone store told me that they didn’t consider that a real problem and offered to sell me a new phone for $200 plus a $30 fee plus a two-year contract extension?”
But of course, we won’t know what’s what until the press conference.
I’ll refer you back to an earlier point: I knew about as much about the problems with the new iPhone as anybody. I had every opportunity to cancel my order but I let it stand. I’ve had “my” iPhone 4 for almost a week now and I couldn’t be happier with it. Part of that decision came from the conclusion that it simply doesn’t affect me. I keep my iPhone 4 in a case and once again, if it’s cased, the antenna problem doesn’t come up.
This iPhone 4 TV movie is still in progress. If it’s as cheesy as they come, it’ll end with the actor playing Steve Jobs on a boat, looking off into a sunrise, smiling, and hugging his wife (played by either Meredith Baxter or Sharon Gless, whichever one the network can get cheaper).