What I’m Expecting From Apple’s iPhone 4 Press Conference Today

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?

Umm…mmmmmmmaybe.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. (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.
  7. 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).

20 thoughts on “What I’m Expecting From Apple’s iPhone 4 Press Conference Today”

  1. Pingback: Gizmodo Liveblog
  2. Let ‘them’ talk – the more ‘they’ talk, the more iPhones Apple sells :-) As a long-time Apple watcher, this saga is amazing. I agree – no recall, no free anything – if you don’t like it, return it and go be a fandroid!

  3. A more long term solution may be to forget about a white version, and offer “right-hand” and “left-hand” versions of the phone..

    1. If the you are right handed, so when using the iPhone it’s held in the left hand, and you type, navigate, scroll with your dom right-hand…This puts the cellular antenna and the gap right smack in the “meat” of the heal of your left hand..

    If you use your phone this way, swap it (free of charge) for a right-hand iPhone.

    2. Lefties that hold the iPhone in their right hand and navigate w/ their left prob. don’t see the issue as much.. unless they hold the phone in the dom hand while using the phone as a phone w/o a hands free earpiece/interface… do people still do that? Isn’t it illegal in all 50 states now? shrug..

    No “recall”, no “defect”, just Apple saying, “Hey, if you want to hold your phone that way, you need this version w/ the antennas flipped. Have a nice day.”

    Issue resolved.

  4. Thanks for the post Andy. Have you tried making a call while bridging the antennae gap and having no bars? I have, using the speaker setting so I can see the lack of bars, and the call is fine. As I let go of the gap the bars come back . I do it back and forth during a call, and neither myself nor the person on the other end can hear any difference at all. I have only dropped one single call since I upgraded to iPhone 4, and that’s because of a dead spot in my house. It’s much better at keeping a connection than the 3GS. It’s a shame that some consumers won’t get to experience this awesome upgrade because of this wide spread panic that doesn’t seem to actually effect the usage of the phone.

  5. Perhaps a simpler solution — cover the antena gap with a very small clear coat of enamel (or some other non-conductor) about 1″ above to 1″ below. Advise all Apple Geniuses to keep some behind the counter and for everyone having the problem take it to the back room and “Keep it for an hour to test the antenna” (while the nailpolish dries).

  6. I also agree they don’t need to recall – there’s no safety issue like a car. So, just for conjecturing sake, and setting up for a fall 45 minutes before the announcement, say they did offer a replacement model B or a fix, free case etc. plus a 10% Apple Store discount – or some other goodwill do you really think they would end up a net negative even financially. I think not.
    Nor does recall = shame/loss of face, actually the reverse in the public mind if handled right (no pun intended but not removed either.

    That being said – they probably won’t do a recall / they could call it a modification programme with mayeb a £50 cost per device (mostly admin and courier costs).

  7. I mostly agree with you Andy.

    Just like a politician, admit that they have a problem without saying there is a problem. Will the “delay” on the new phones be mentioned? They will act sort of like Pres. Obama but instead of it’s Pres. Bush’s fault it is “Blame it on AT&T”.

  8. Reasonable, logical, based on your personal experience.
    I can’t help but agree with you.
    I’m looking forward to the press event.

    BTW, I love your writing style. It’s up there with Adelaide Dugdale and Stephen Fry.

  9. It’s ironic that apple make a product that doesn’t care which way you hold it(iPad) and one that breaks if you hold it in the wrong way(iPhone 4). by the way Sky TV in the UK had Chen from Gizmondo on talking about the issue, not that he has an axe to grind at all.

  10. Apple has already extended the return widow. Most media dolts aren’t even aware of that fact. Every financial website has at least one Apple story everyday of the week. That alone tells you how important Apple is in driving internet traffic. The most hilarious site is thestreet.com. The have Scott Mor(on)itz who submits only negative content to drive the stock down and then Cramer himself pushes the positive content. Clearly designed to manipulate the stock.

  11. I’m not sure why you and everyone focus solely on dropped calls as being the standard-bearer of usability. As has been mentioned often on TWiT, voice transmission on a digital network is all or nothing. Either you have voice or not. So more often than not, the IP4 antenna defect merely results in a reduction in bars, but no dropped call. That was exactly my experience with the IP4.

    But data is another animal. The throughput of the data, even on a digital network, is greatly affected by signal strength on the receiving end. Typically, when you are in a strong signal area, your data flies. Conversely, if you have 1 or 2 bars, your throughput will take a significant hit. This has been evident on all prior iPhones, as well as smartphones going way back to the Kyocera 6035. And this is where I’ve found fault with the IP4.

    My data speeds on the IP4 varied greatly, often from a more than healthy 1.5 down to often nothing but a spinning ball (upload speeds were consistently terrible, but if you believe AT&T, that was due to a hardware issue on their end). While you could blame the poor data speeds on AT&T tower congestion, that did not appear to be the case in my testing.

    I compared my IP4 data reception to a 3GS. Same location. Same method of holding the device (in hand, but not death grip). Same websites tested. On more than one occasion, the iPhone 4 stalled out and either failed to load the site entirely or took 2+ minutes or more to load a simple site. The 3GS, on the other hand, loaded the page properly and in under 20 seconds each time. When I put both devices on a table, the reliability and data speed was comparable in all instances.

    While this was hardly a scientific test, it was enough to convince me that there is a serious problem with the IP4 antenna. After Apple’s press release last week announcing the “fix”, I promptly gave up hope of an actual solution and returned the device.

    I’m now an Android user (Sprint Evo). Going through some growing pains after three years on the iPhone platform, but generally enjoying the device. Keep in mind that I am no “hater”, as Scott Bourne might say. It seems like almost every consumer electronics product in my house was ‘Designed in Cupertino’ and I’m going to miss much about the iPhone experience. But regrettably, the last few weeks have proven to me that this iteration of the device is a lemon.

  12. A most excellent post and analysis/prediction IMHO. My ATT contract expires in about 3 weeks and I will likely retire the ol’ 3G for a new 4, and since I have never owned a cell phone without having a robust case for it (I do take it into the field, and you KNOW what can happen in the field) I too will likely have no antenna issues. My 3G has been a workhorse and then some, and I still enjoy using it every day. The 4 looks like it has what my phone has, only vastly better. I’m just waiting for Otterbox to have their new Defender case ready as well as my current contract to expire. Then, I shall take the plunge.

    It never ceases to amaze me how people go after Apple whenever possible. Correct me if I’m wrong, but weren’t there 3G connection issues when the Nexus One first came out? And of the three regular members of This Week in Google that had Nexus Ones, haven’t two of them had to send them back and get a new phone in less than 6 months of use? Yet Leo jumps on any “Apple is bad” rumor or statement and hypes it as much as anybody out there.

    I have heard no outrage even roughly in the same media frenzy ballpark concerning problems with other products/platforms compared with Apple, and lets be honest, every type of cutting-edge technology has issues, especially when first released. Funny thing: consumers don’t seem to listen to a lot of this stuff. As you pointed out, the iPhone is still selling like crazy, and the Toyota Camry is still the number one selling passenger car in the country. As time goes on, more and more people are coming to the conclusion that a lot of these alleged earth-shattering defects are at best exaggerated.

  13. Isn’t the metal bezel around the glass on the 3GS also part of the antenna system on that phone?

    This is not to say that I disagree with any of your conclusions. I suspect it might go a little differently, but do not expect any sort of recall to be issued.

  14. It’s interesting that no one has had this device long enough to be out of the 30 day normal return policy (let alone any extended return that they implement) and yet there are already multiple class action lawsuits over this. To channel Louis CK, get a grip people – it’s just a phone..! If you don’t like it, take it back..! The lawyers who brought these class action suits should be dis-barred: there are supposed to be professional ethics standards that prevent frivolous suits being presented and these clearly are frivolous if other channels for remedy haven’t been exhausted.

    The device is not a lemon but Apple have clearly taken a calculated gamble and at the moment are coming off badly. Overall, the reception of the iPhone 4 is better than that of the 3GS. This has been shown in multiple tests. Some of this gain must be down to the decision to put metal antennas on the outside of the device. The downside of that choice is that a bridged antenna in a poor signal area is compromised. Apple have decided that the upside outweighs the downside, but if that’s not a conclusion that a particular user agrees with, they don’t have to use the phone. That doesn’t make it a lemon any more than a pickup truck is a lemon for someone who wants a sports car.

    I like the sound of the best case scenario – that the transmission software just gets confused as to how to deal with a compromised antenna, but I’m not sure how likely that is. I wasn’t impressed with the tone of Apple’s press release the other week about the signal display algorithm. I thought it was too jokey, but what the heck. They sold so many of these things, they must be laughing all the way to the bank.

    Overall, I don’t think this is their ‘Vista moment’ as much as Microsoft would like it to be. They killed the Cube computer, they cut the price of the original phone soon after introduction, they took away firewire connectors on the lower end laptops… All these things caused a great gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair when they were announced, but the overall long term trajectory is still up. People have short memories as long as the upsides are generally better than the downsides.

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