- The Tech Night Owl — Cutting-Edge Tech Commentary - https://www.technightowl.com -

Apple Gets on the Bad Side of Consumer Reports

As if Apple doesn’t have enough PR problems what with the alleged sensitivity issues surrounding the latest and greatest iPhone, now Consumer Reports, the most respected product review publication in the U.S., has, as a result of their own testing, given the hot new gadget a negative rating.

In the original blog on the subject, CR said they couldn’t figure out how to duplicate the alleged reception problem. But evidently they found the secret handshake, which was the reason for a thumbs down, at least until Apple comes up with a fix.

Their findings are best summarized in these sentences: “When your finger or hand touches a spot on the phone’s lower left side—an easy thing, especially for lefties—the signal can significantly degrade enough to cause you to lose your connection altogether if you’re in an area with a weak signal. Due to this problem, we can’t recommend the iPhone 4.”

In the meantime, CR is also suggesting that, other than holding it differently of course, you do something to cover up the sensitive region with tape or a case. Or buy someone else’s product, even though the iPhone 4 otherwise scored better than the smartphones they tested in a new product roundup.

Even though covering the sensitive region of the phone eliminates the problem, CR says it’s not enough: “…Apple needs to come up with a permanent—and free—fix for the antenna problem before we can recommend the iPhone 4.”

The dreaded “Not Recommended” label from CR can often be the kiss of death for a product, or severely hurt sales. In recent months, Toyota was sent rushing back to the drawing board when one of their luxury SUVs was given bad marks because of alleged serious handling problems. Toyota brought out a software fix that addressed the vehicle’s handling characteristics, and, upon confirming that the update did what it was supposed to do, CF withdrew the unfavorable rating.

I have had only brief face time with an iPhone 4, and haven’t made an extended effort to duplicate the reception problem. More to the point, CR’s efforts to see if other smartphones had similar reception defects may be flawed if we assume they tried the same hand position, not considering other positions would trigger their specific problems. Certainly the conclusion that none of the other devices they tested had the problem flies in the face of independent tests that present contrary results.

Unfortunately, CR hasn’t really treated Apple so fairly in most respects. Their PC reviews, for example, routinely fail to enumerate the differences between the Mac OS and Windows, so the reader is left with the impression that the Mac is just the higher-priced spread, even though the truth is far more nuanced.

So it may well be that CR’s target audience isn’t that heavy into Apple products anyway, even though they still generally get high ratings and score well in the magazine’s reliability surveys of its readership. But when you add the CR complaint to loads of press reports about problems with the new iPhone’s reception, it can be enough to impact sales severely once the rush of early adopters has abated.

This doesn’t mean Apple is confronting an insoluble problem. They could, perhaps, offer free “bumpers” for folks who complain about the ability to make and receive phone calls. That promised software update to revise the sensitivity display should be pushed out as quickly as possible, and perhaps, along the way, Apple might find a way to make the product function more reliably under conditions where signal strength is marginal.

Once that’s done, they ought to shout the fix to the skies and make sure that they can demonstrate to CR’s editors that they’ve solved the problem, regardless of the true cause.

The timing, however, couldn’t be worse. Up till now, Apple has been on a roll because of super successful product introductions, and I wonder once again why it took loads of complaints, the threat of class action lawsuits and heavy press coverage to discover that a problem really existed.

Worse, Apple’s usually flawless PR machine failed big time here. The original admonitions by corporate communications and even Steve Jobs to just hold the phone differently didn’t sit well. It makes you think that perhaps they had something to hide, or perhaps rushed the product to market without sufficient field testing under severe conditions.

Yes, I can see where maybe that infamous lost or stolen prototype might have hurt Apple’s testing process. It is possible, I suppose, that they opted to restrict the testing process to more controlled environments, and thus failed to discover the consequences of customers handling the phone with sweaty palms in a way that caused this defect to appear.

I don’t dispute the contention from antenna experts that all or most mobile handsets will display similar reception issues when held in the right or wrong way, depending on your point of view. Apple might do well to hold a public demonstration, with the press in attendance, to confirm that, say, a Droid or a Droid X can be induced to also lose sensitivity under easily duplicated conditions.

In the end, I still believe Apple will surmount these obstacles and emerge triumphant. But Steve Jobs has to know that they brought it all on themselves.