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Apple Feeds the Haters

All right, you know that most anyone who doesn’t much care for Apple must be cheering now. The company may be facing some serious trouble with the spectacularly successful iPhone 4 rollout, because of alleged antenna issues.

As you’ve no doubt heard, if you hold the iPhone 4 in your left hand and move your palm and fingers in a certain way, sensitivity goes down the tubes. This symptom is produced by covering those brand new, super sensitive antennas.

This claim appears to be true. Even if you don’t have an iPhone 4 at hand to test, there are loads of YouTube videos showing just how it’s done. But once you master the one-handed salute, is there any way to cope with that state of affairs, other than returning your iPhone for a refund of course?

Well, Apple has given several answers to complaints about the problem. The first, echoed by Steve Jobs, is to just hold it differently, which begs the question of why should you be forced to hold this iPhone any different from any other smartphone, or regular mobile handset for that matter?

The subsequent explanations were rather more descriptive, claiming that this is a problem that can affect any mobile phone, so live with it or use bumpers or a case to shield the antenna region from your sweaty palms.

All well and good, except for the nasty fact that this is the very first time large numbers of people have found reason to complain about a huge drop in performance with an iPhone. More to the point, if you live or travel to an area where signal strength is pretty high, you might not be seriously impacted. Otherwise, you may lose your connection, be it Internet or that important business phone call.

In recent days, the dialog between Steve Jobs and Apple customers on this and other subjects has grown more verbose, although a recent email exchange is reported by Apple to be bogus. But Jobs has hinted at a forthcoming fix in other communications, and Apple has now admitted the problem is actually due to incorrectly displaying signal strength; in other words, you’re seeing the wrong number of bars. According to Apple: “We will issue a free software update within a few weeks that incorporates the corrected formula. Since this mistake has been present since the original iPhone, this software update will also be available for the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 3G.”

At the same time, the legal ambulance chasers in our midst are busy with their class action lawsuits, designed to force Apple to pay for its failures and possible stonewalling about the existence of such a serious product defect. Unfortunately, legal actions of this sort may take years to resolve, and if the complainants actually emerge victorious, the lawyers get paid first, and the customers who were actually hurt end up with little more than a discount coupon so you can buy something else from the company that allegedly injured you.

The real issue is how Apple might have allowed this alleged defect to slip into production, in fact admitting that the signal display has always been incorrect ever since the first iPhone. And why would that bug suddenly become so significant, after tens of millions of iPhones have been sold around the world?

Of course, the truth is that pretty much all mobile phones will exhibit some sort of signal strength degradation if held the “wrong way,” which can vary from device to device.

Such design compromises are evidently the result of FCC regulations, which mandate that handset makers move the antennas as far away from your head as possible, so you don’t fry your brain or develop tumors from excess radiation. That posture forces certain design constraints that certainly make sense, although you’d rather believe you could hold your phone any way you want without hurting performance.

Now if Apple’s promised fix succeeds in its intent, which is displaying the real signal strength on your phone, so it doesn’t change so drastically when you hold it the wrong way, it will only be yet another product glitch in a long line of product glitches.

Apple didn’t help themselves, though, when their initial efforts at corporate spin control were not just uninformed, but sometimes downright insulting. Hold your iPhone differently indeed! At least Steve Jobs seems to understand that this was a serious PR misfire, but his assurances that Apple has the problem under review didn’t come soon enough.

I do hope that the fix is simply software. For Apple to be forced to recall millions of iPhones because of serious design defects might cause a huge black mark on their reputation for unparalleled success, not to mention money lost. It would also give Apple haters and rival companies lots of ammunition to grab a piece of the pie for themselves, and I’m sure Apple didn’t expect it to turn out that way.