iPhone 4 "Antennagate"

The Media are doing it wrong


Apple has given its answer to "Antennagate", and the new mushroom cloud is up, and honestly, I wonder if people even bother to listen to what anyone says anymore. I think Andy Ihnatko said it best:

Steve Jobs didn’t fall to his knees, rend his garment, clasp his hands together, and beg for forgiveness from users and stockholders. This has upset many people.

[ See also: iPhone 4 Administration: Where's the Beef? ]

These people are idiots.

To expand a bit...normally, a product defect is pretty simple. Here, we'll take a look at a fairly recent Apple one. On some laptops, the batteries would start to heat up and swell, creating a potential danger. This kind of thing is easy because:

  • It is consistently verifiable as a real-world problem
  • The scope is limited
  • The problem is easily measured and explained
  • The solution is fairly simple.

The iPhone 4 antenna issue fails on all but one of these. If you happen to have consistently good connections, (jokes aside, yes, you can have this even in the US on AT&T), you may have never notice it. Keep in mind that the best verifiable signal drop measurement came from Consumer Reports, (20dbm), and given that pre-4.0.1 iPhone 4 "bar scale", the fifth bar had a range of over 40dbm, you could literally never see this. Or, if you were say, at the upper edge of 4 bars/the very lower edge of 5, you could easily see a drop from 5 to 1 or less. Why? Because the combined range of bars 1-4 pre-4.0.1 was, based on Anandtech's graphics, 25dbm. So a 20dbm drop could eviscerate that scale, even though you'd still be able to make a call and use the network. So people see this massive dropoff, and, not knowing that bars are B.S. on so many levels, freak out. I'm not going to blame any 'normal' user for freaking out on this. It's not their fault that Apple, AT&T, and the entire cell phone industry is giving them a marketing device pimped out as some kind of valid indicator. They're reacting to the only tool they have. The scope on this problem is ridiculous, because every cell phone currently in production has the same problem, just to differing extents. (Note: to date, we have not a single decent comparison of this problem from anyone. I know why, because doing so would take a lot of work, and even more money. So to say that the iPhone 4 has this problem 'worst of all' is specious at best. We don't know if that's true or not. But it gets repeated, because hey, hit counts.) It doesn't matter where you put the antenna. If you grab any phone currently in production the right way, you can get it to drop signal sensitivity. It may not drop bars, because as we've seen, you can jigger bars to mean whatever you want. (So, if grabbing the phone wrong gives you say, a 10dbm drop, you make sure all your bars are > 10dbm in range. That way, you only get a single bar drop. See? Problem solved!) But at the frequencies and power levels we're talking about, the human body attenuating signal, or reducing sensitivity is unavoidable. So you can't cast this as an Apple-only problem, because that's completely incorrect, nor can you say Apple has this problem worse than everyone else, because we don't have enough valid studies done to prove that either. (Well, you can say both of those things, but unless you provide proof, you should be roundly mocked.) This particular problem is neither easily measured nor explained to the layperson, nor anyone who is not fairly intimately familiar with RF, in particular high-frequency/low power RF and cellular design. I've seen all kinds of ridiculous 'explanations' for this problem from people who may as well write "magic" instead of "RF", for all they understand. First, let's keep something in mind: we are talking about ridiculously low power here. For example, looking at Anandtech again, (and yes, I do dislike having only one source for most of the 'real' numbers in this. But since Anandtech and CR are the only outlets that bothered to do any actual testing with useful results, it's what we're stuck with), we see the upper end of five bars on the iPhone 4, regardless of software version is -51dbm. In terms of power, i.e. "watts", that's just under 10nW, or less than ten billionths of a watt. We are not talking about strong signal here. (This is receiver sensitivity, not transmitter power, there's a difference.) So you aren't going to be able to measure it accurately without a pretty specialized setup, and some pretty specialized equipment. It's a bit of a Morton's fork: We use the correct units and numbers, and have that all be meaningless, or we use units that have no inherent accuracy or value, but that everyone gets. Fun times folks, fun times, and the media, by and large, has completely fallen down here. The solution ends up being simple, unless by solution you mean "Apple completely redesigns the phone, so you still have an antenna that is far more sensitive, (-121dbm on the iPhone 4 vs -105dbm on the 3GS), yet is somehow able to never be attenuated by the human body." That's not going to happen, so Apple did the next best thing: They are going to give away bumpers, they are going to credit people who already paid for them, and they're going to do so until at least Sept 30th. They'll re-evaluate that solution at that time. They may, by then, come up with a coating that will not mess up reception, won't wear off, look funny or scratch, or they may just keep giving away bumpers. We don't know. That of course hasn't stopped anyone from assuming all kinds of stuff, including, sadly, Consumer Reports:

Consumer Reports believes Apple's offer of free cases is a good first step. However, Apple has indicated that this is not a long-term solution, it has guaranteed the offer only through September 30th, and has not extended it unequivocally to customers who bought cases from third-party vendors. We look forward to a long-term fix from Apple.

This reply, to be blunt, is ridiculous. First, how is Apple supposed to verify who bought a third party case? Not that it matters, because you still get a free case from Apple anyway, but still, how do you verify that? You can't, not really, and if Apple tried, CR would most likely excoriate them for "not trusting their customers". Gimme a break. People will kill you for a quarter, you expect them not to lie for thirty bucks? Secondly, let's say that Apple, on Sept. 30th realizes the bumper is in fact, the best solution to the problem. (Being the solution you like more is not the same. The bumper does in fact, solve the problem of reduced sensitivity when you hold the phone right. That's the issue, not "should Apple redesign the iPhone 4 and give the new ones to everyone with an old one." That would also solve the problem, but not necessarily better. Two solutions, one is simple and available now. Win.) Apple says "We'll give you a free bumper with every iPhone 4 forever". I don't see CR changing its mind. It's pretty obvious that CR and too many other outlets have decided that there is only one acceptable solution, and any other, no matter how effective, will not satisfy them. Sometimes kid, you get Coke, not Dr. Pepper. Get over it. This has not been a simple problem to explain, the scope is massive, but the solution Apple has come up with, is in the end, simple and effective. Now...for the rest of it. The screaming about how long Apple took. Twenty-two days. That's it. Not even a month. And yet, in that time, in the name of hit counts and attention, everyone joined in the round to scream at Apple that they weren't doing enough. Even a friggin' congressman got in on the act. Admittedly, a lot of this could have been mitigated had Steve's love for curt answers not gotten the best of him, but still, twenty-two days to evaluate the scope and details of the problem in decent detail, evaluate options, and come up with a solution that's fairly pain-free for all? You know what? I can live with that. I don't care that Apple didn't send the media daily emails to keep them apprised. I don't care that Apple didn't send daily, meaningless emails to anyone. Or weekly emails, (not that you would have gotten more than three.) Instead, they shut up until they had an answer that would work, then told everyone. I like that. I like it because, like a lot of people in IT, I've been in that situation, where things are going bonkers, and instead of having all hands working to fix the problem, you waste a significant amount of time "keeping people in the loop". "Keeping people in the loop" is managementspeak for "Stroke my ego so I feel important, more important than the problem you're trying to fix." That's all the media whining here is. They weren't made to feel more important than everyone. Too bad. As a consumer, I'd prefer companies not talk to me about a problem until they have a fix ready. Saves us both time. But no, because Apple wasn't doing...well, no one really knows, but we know the media is darned unhappy about whatever it was that wasn't done, they made sure to be pissed at Apple over it. However, that's just me. I'm a self-admitted edge case, and I can live with that. I think Apple would have been better served, once they realized how badly this was going to get overblown, and Steve was dead-on right about this, it was indeed overblown, to start doing the occasional, "Yes, we are in fact, looking at this, seriously. We're not going to give a statement about how we're going to deal with it until we are absolutely sure we have a solution that works best for all sides, but we are not ignoring this or hoping people forget about this." Now, it would not have done bubkis to get to a solution better or faster, but sometimes, you have to give people a pat on the rump, or they start whining and fussing. I think the argument that Apple has only itself to blame for the astounding amount of...garbage theories...is silly. There's no way to win that. You can't debunk garbage until you have the facts. Yet, if they don't immediately debunk garbage, it's their fault for not debunking it, and if they debunk it without facts, then they're lying to people. Talk about a can't-win situation. The media, such as it stands, could have taken the tact Anandtech did, and do some actual bloody work and analysis. But no, they didn't. They couldn't even be bothered to wait for the facts to come out, because waiting for facts doesn't jack hit counts. Instead, they pumped up every stupid rumor or random impulse they could. Then, when Apple does have a press conference, and they do have some facts to work with, they ignore that because Steve didn't agree with the voices in their heads, and start making stuff up. "Steve said there was no problem, yet they're giving away a bumper." No, he didn't say that. In fact, he very clearly articulated the problem. If there was no problem, why pay for millions of bumpers? "Steve lied". Show me independently verifiable proof, or stop saying that. On and on. I'm tempted to say that I don't know why Apple bothered, but I do know why. That press conference wasn't for the press. They just happened to be a necessary evil. The press conference was for customers. For the millions who have bought iPhone 4s or are thinking about it. That press conference wasn't Steve reaching out to the press, it was Steve reaching out to the people who count. Of course, since the people who count, aren't the press, the press is not ever going to forgive Steve for that. No one gets away with not treating the press like their feet never even touch the ground. Steve didn't suck up to the press, and that's just unforgivable. Frankly, I think the press needs a good spanking and to be sent to bed sans dinner. Oh, and one more thing, to demonstrate why numbers without context are useless...a friend of mine, my boss in fact, and I were talking about Steve's point that the iPhone 4 has more dropped calls than the iPhone 3GS. He said this was, in his experience, absolutely true. However, he was rather happy about that. He explained that on his family's farm, with the 3G/3GS, he never even tried to make a call, as he never had any signal. Having been camping on said farm before with him, I had to agree. That farm is a zone of "No Signal". But, he said, with the iPhone 4, he was able to get signal where he'd never come close to getting signal before. (No, AT&T did not put up a new tower. Older iPhones think it's just as much of a dead zone as ever.) So, yes, he dropped more calls, because he was able to at least try to make calls he couldn't have even attempted to make prior to the iPhone 4. Dropped calls are not always bad. When you see media outlets breathlessly quoting numbers and talking about dropped calls, do three things:

  1. Look for context. You'll not find much, that's a lot more work than quote-mining
  2. Look for the source of those numbers, and links to the source data. You'll find even less of that. (I still am rather annoyed that the sum total data from CR is a short video and a few blog posts. Come on guys, you know how this is supposed to work.) Release all the data on your testing and let everyone see it. Otherwise, how are we supposed to really believe you? The same for Apple and everyone else. Show us the source data, or be prepared to not be trusted.
  3. Finally, don't assume that the 'tech media' know more about anything than anyone. They frequently know less.
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