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Opinion: Steve Jobs’ Reality Distortion Field Clashes With AntennaGate

July 20, 2010

The ‘reality distortion field’ so often attributed to the magical Steve Jobs is fortunately limited by both space and time. Now that we’ve had a few days to let Apple's Antennagate press conference sync in, what do we make of the cold hard “data” that Jobs presented last Friday. Since I am a scientist, my skepticism is promptly placed on red alert whenever anyone starts an argument claiming to have performed “extremely sophisticated testing," but then fails to produce it. Since those are exactly the words Steve Jobs used just before launching into a series of arguments meant to deflect mounting criticism  that the iPhone 4 has a serious antenna-based flaw, I'm going to hold him to a higher standard. The state of affairs that lead up to the conference, which Jobs himself referred to as anntenagate, is that the ability of the iPhone 4 to receive and transmit voice or data can be diminished if the phone is held or touched in certain ways. The ‘gate’ part of antennagate stems from the fact that Apple seems content to stick to the story that it knew nothing about the phone's sensitivity to how its handled before it was released to the market three weeks ago. Oh, yes -- Apple also maintains that it really isn't an issue anyway -- at least not a major one. What problem? Apple’s claim that it knew nothing about the vulnerability of the iPhone 4’s external dual array of antennas to how the phone is handled is pretty hard to swallow. It's even harder to accept after Apple used the conference to unveil their sophisticated radio-testing facility. The facility, so secret that most Apple employees were likely unaware of its existence till last Friday, holds 16 or 17 specially constructed anechoic chambers designed to test radio devices like cell phones and iPads. Although Apple reportedly spent 100 million dollars to build and staff this facility, Jobs expects us to believe that a drawback inherent to any external antenna designed to be handled by bare hands simply eluded them. There  are several other reasons to maintain a healthy skepticism regarding how much Apple knew and when they knew it. Jobs stated at one point in the conference Friday that “we knew that if you gripped it (the iPhone 4) in a certain way, the bars are going to go down a little bit…” Got that: “a little bit.” In fact, anyone living in a region that has marginal “5-bar” AT&T service can easily demonstrate that very little skin contact on the iPhone's metal side can drop the number of bars displayed by more than just a little bit. Touching the seam on the left side of the iPhone 4 acts to connect the iPhone's cellular-radio and WiFi antennas. Under the right circumstances even the placement of a finger tip here can drop five bars in the display to one bar, or even none at all. No crushing “death grip” is required.

Finger Press Can Drop Most Bars

Oh, yes - we are also expected to swallow the story that over the last three years Apple entirely failed to notice that all of their iPhones incorrectly showed 5 bars in regions with weak or marginal signal strength. The recent iOS 4.0.1 update rectifies this by displaying fewer bars in more places. Steve Jobs spent several minutes at his conference demonstrating that Apple’s engineers were able to identify several awkward “death grips” that could drop the bars displayed on three competing smart phones.

Astonishingly, Jobs presented none of Apple's extensive studies in which they presumably tried to reproduce this effect with the iPhone 4. Neither did he provide any examples of how different grips or skin contact might adversely affect its reception. For the most part, Jobs left the impression that Apple still doesn’t think there is a serious problem with the iPhone’s reception in the real world, and even if there was, he asserted that you basically would get similar results with their competitors' phones. He sort of left out that that in areas with a weak signal you can easily interfere with an iPhone’s reception by just handling it naturally. To avoid dropping calls or data rates in such circumstances, you either need to consciously avoid touching the iPhone’s weak spot or clothe it in a case that prevents direct contact of the antenna junction with your skin. For me, the most discomforting aspect of Steve’s presentation was that although he talked a lot about taking the time to get “data” before speaking to the press, he really presented very little data at all. When he did present numerical data, I was left with the impression that he intended to deceive or mislead. Steve Job’s defense of the iPhone 4 was built around four major bullet points that he presented at the conference:

All smart phones have "weakspots"

To counter videos published to the Web that assailed the iPhone 4, Jobs proceeded to show similar videos made by Apple that were obviously intended to assail the performance of competing smart phones. Instead of exploring exactly what kind of grips or hand contact negatively impacted the iPhone 4’s performance, these videos basically showed that if you worked at it, you could decrease the signal displayed by competing phones. Unfortunately, the videos are sort of meaningless as 'data' because Steve himself pointed out that the number of bars that all smart phones display is calculated differently for each phone. There is no standard way of translating signal strength to the number of bars shown. All of Apple’s sophisticated testing was essentially condensed into three more viral videos. It's clear that these videos were created to instill a strong visual impression that the iPhone 4 was no worse in this antenna interference behavior than their competitors. Unsurprisingly the makers of these other phones took affront with Apple’s videos. RIM issued a statement that "Apple's claims about RIM products appear to be deliberate attempts to distort the public's understanding of an antenna design issue and to deflect attention from Apple's difficult situation." RIM emphatically claimed that their customers don't need to use a case for their BlackBerry smart phone in order to maintain proper connectivity. AppleCare data = 0.55% Jobs claimed that only 0.55% of iPhone customers have contacted AppleCare in the last 22 days to complain about poor reception with the iPhone 4. I have to ask why on earth is this statement restricted to just calls made to AppleCare? What about users who called or complained about reception issues at retail Apple stores? Perhaps many users did what most of us would do when experiencing difficulties with reception using a new cell phone. That is, assume that its manufacturer wouldn’t have shipped a phone with a design flaw that hindered reception when held in a natural manner, and thus complain to the carrier, AT&T, instead. I am left wondering just how many users of the iPhone 4 have complained to AT&T about poor quality reception or dropped calls. Motorola, manufacturer of one of the phones featured on stage with Jobs, the Droid Eris, recently stated that they have only received complaints regarding reception from 0.016% of their customers. That is a 34-fold lower rate than the 0.55% claimed for the iPhone 4. ATT return rates = ⅓ of 3GS This is simply comparing apples to lemons (excuse the pun). The iPhone 4 has only been sold for some 22 days. The return period granted by Apple and AT&T is 30 days. Returns for any product, and particularly something like a cell phone that requires extended use to identify a problem, are typically going to ramp up as the deadline for return draws near. There simply hasn’t been 30 days yet, even for first-day customers, to return the phone. The value that Jobs is using for 3GS returns isn’t affected in that way, at least not to the same extent (Job said that his value was few days old, which means it comprises less than or equal to 20 days of initial shipments -- which for AT&T were limited due to the meltdown of their ordering system). Is there some reason Steve Jobs didn't share with us the return rate to Apple? A lot of people are also likely holding on to their iPhone 4 to see what Apple intends to do about the antennagate situation first. Returning a phone and canceling or amending a cellular service contract isn’t a small matter. Additionally, many users might want to preserve a particular phone number and arrange a return so as to ensure uninterrupted service as well. Returning a cell phone is something that most people are likely to put off to nearly the last moment. Keep in mind also that the antenna issue is going to more dramatically affect users moving about primarily in areas with marginal AT&T service. It might take significantly more time for users who frequently move in and out of such areas to recognize how serious the issue is for their circumstances. Drop calls =< 1 per 100 Jobs admitted that the iPhone 4 drops more calls than the 3GS, but then smugly added that it’s less than 1 more dropped call per 100. Now why would Jobs use such an awkward declaration like that? Why not just show us the data? Well, Jobs said AT&T didn't want to release absolute numbers. However, AT&T recently claimed that the percentage of dropped calls throughout their entire network fell from 1.41% to 1.05% between December 2008 and December 2009. Let’s assume for a minute that the dropped call rate for the 3GS is 1.05% (this is really easy to do since Jobs didn’t tell us what it is -  I’m at least referencing something). The dropped call rate for the iPhone 4 could be essentially twice as high at 2%, and Jobs would still be correct in asserting the difference was less than or equal to 1 more dropped call per 100. I welcome Steve Jobs (or AT&T) to release the actual data, but currently what Steve Jobs said at the press conference could be construed to mean that iPhone 4 drops as many as twice the number of calls that the iPhone 3GS does. I think Jobs may have wanted everyone to take away the impression that the difference between the phones was only 1%, when the total number of dropped calls might be nearly twice as much for the iPhone 4. If that extra dropped call happens to be from a big new sales contact or during a job-screening interview, it won't seem so minor to you. Outside the Reality Distortion Field Steve Jobs definitely left the impression at the conference that the evil press, vengeful bloggers, and jealous competitors had unfairly targeted Apple. The fact that the iPhone 4 was a superior smart phone with a new, innovative antenna that was just misunderstood and the whole uproar was vastly blown out of proportion. That, in fact, antennagate was a nonissue and that he and Apple were victims. Even if they are, in some small way, victims -- they are certainly not innocent. In their marketing spiel, Apple made a big deal about how novel and innovative its dual external antenna system was. They neglected to reveal that this new design came with the drawback of having a weak spot that's difficult to avoid touching in normal use. It was sort of like waving a red flag at the bull run in Spain. You're probably murmuring why all this angst? Didn't Apple relent and promise to give all their iPhone 4 customers experiencing reception issues a free bumper or case to mitigate the antenna issue? While there's no question that's a good move on their part, I just wish Apple had shown the good sense to do that from the outset. While the design of the iPhone is unquestionably unique and distinctive, it also almost cries out for a protective case of some kind. After all, most of its exposed surface is constructed with glass. In many ways, it's a good thing that most iPhone 4's will be wearing some sort of protective gear. Otherwise the next controversy would likely be over how much it costs to repair or replace one that's been dropped.

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