Problems, Problems, Problems All Day Long!

July 7th, 2010

It seems as if Apple can’t escape bad news these days. Most recently, it was all about the alleged antenna shortcomings of the latest and greatest iPhone. If you held it the right way — or the wrong way depending on your half-empty/half-full point of view — sensitivity dropped seriously.

Apple’s claim, after a few non-start explanations, is that they were displaying too many bars all along, so a marginal connection would deliver nearly the same visible signal strength as a good signal. That assumes you actually live somewhere in AT&T’s reach where a good signal is to be had.

Before I get on with this discussion, you have to wonder about those AT&T ads a while back proclaiming more bars and fewer dropped calls, knowing that it wasn’t just the latter that was false, but that they conveyed the illusion of a stronger signal than your mobile handset really acquired. When Apple says they are switching to AT&T’s current sensitivity algorithm, that seems a tacit admission that AT&T was previously lying about the number of bars displayed, and Apple just followed the same routine in total ignorance of the consequences.

Or, as many believe, it’s all just a clumsy spin control effort resulting from Apple being caught utterly flat-footed over the iPhone grip controversy. Yes, we all make mistakes, but I find it difficult to believe that the brilliant engineers at Apple Inc. let three years go by before finally being forced to respond to this issue as the result of being inundated with highly-public complaints about the serious loss of sensitivity of the iPhone 4 if you hold it the “wrong way.”

But that wasn’t all. You have all heard about the ongoing FTC probes into some of Apple’s business practices, such as blocking Flash from the mobile platform and severely limiting the use of third-party development environments to build software for the App Store. And I haven’t even begun to address privacy issues growing out of iAds and other matters.

Even if Apple emerges with a clean skin — or only slightly dirty — from these investigations, it’s a curious turnaround to see a company once given up for lost suddenly being respected as a fearsome competitor in several tech markets. Curious indeed!

There’s also the news this week that a reported 400 iTunes accounts have been hacked, resulting in customers being charged loads of money for non-existent purchases. The revelation comes at the same time as one developer was summarily ejected from the iOS SDK program after attempting to game the system, though it’s unclear if the two events are somehow related.

Of course, with over 225,000 apps available, even though Apple must examine and approve every entry, they are still apt to make mistakes. At least they can unapprove an app, something very rarely done in the Android market, although I gather it is possible for Google to pull the plug for the worst offenders, but has it ever happened?

What about the potential for downloading a malware-ridden piece of junk on an Android phone? How are you protected, or is Google so involved in the job of attracting more eyeballs for targeted ads that they occasionally overlook such issues?

In any case, when it comes to credit cards, I’ll cut Apple some slack. There is really no way to guarantee 100% security. That’s why credit card companies will, or should, reverse or chargeback transactions that are reported as bogus. It happens to many of us; my son once found his debit card overdrawn as the result of a fake transaction, and his bank didn’t hesitate to fix the problem. But the right to dispute is mandated by law, so it shouldn’t be a large issue. Besides, with over 150 million accounts on file, you can well understand that Apple isn’t doing so bad, if the 400 figure is accurate.

If there’s a downside to all this news, it’s the fact that no company, even one as iconic as Apple, can endure endless bouts of bad publicity without consequence. Right or wrong, customers will take notice, and sales will be lost. This isn’t to say that the iPhone 4 will become a failure because of this antenna issue, however it is ultimately resolved. But it’s a highly competitive market out there, and, if you’re willing to put up with a less-finished OS, there is far more hardware variety to be found on an Android OS phone.

Sure, they won’t have a retina display, a video conferencing app to match the ease and reliability of FaceTime, or any of the other flourishes that are typical of an Apple mobile product. There’s no mystique and no prestige about a smartphone from HTC or Motorola. They might have some wonderful features, along with less elegant ones of course, so they are very much the equivalent of generic Windows PCs in the scheme of things.

But it’s not the Mac versus Windows platform wars all over again. The runaway success of the iPhone should, assuming no more serious missteps, keep Apple’s massive profit machine rolling for years to come.

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5 Responses to “Problems, Problems, Problems All Day Long!”

  1. Mike says:

    As much as I hate to say it, Apple is getting sloppy. For a company that could do no wrong a year and a half ago, it seems every product release since has been plagued by quality control problems and their related excuses. It’s unfortunate and becoming more and more unjustifiable in defending Apple’s reputation (I say that with a heavy heart).
    Perhaps they’re trying to progress technology at a rate they can’t cope with themselves. Microsoft has ruined their reputation by always trying to catch up with the Smiths (always the brides maid, never the bride). Apple, I dare say, may ruin their reputation by releasing products while only half baked in order to make daily headlines. I hope I’m wrong.
    While Apple has indeed progressed computer related IU technology at a staggering rate, they are not beyond reality and are going to have to accept that not everyone believes all that is posted in their press releases. Sooner or later the truth comes out about everything and the terse Apple responses, or no response at all, will no longer suffice.
    Hense, Apple discussion groups to resolve problems Apple will neither confess to nor assist in, in order to prevent admission of liability in design.
    I’ve said my peace.

    All the best Gene and thanks for the daily thoughts.

  2. Richard says:

    “Alleged” antenna problems?

    As if common sense were not enough to convince one that physical contact with an RF antenna was not a good idea, Applecare are reported to have conceded that a firmware update will not “fix” the problem.

    And then there is “Why Consumer Reports Can’t Recommend the iPhone”.

    AnandTech’s review also points out the antenna deficiencies.

    This is further proof that no one dares to tell Steve “no”, even when the problem is self-evident.

    Apple “want ads” for antenna engineers should tell you all you need to know.

    • @Richard, Basically, if you look carefully, you’ll see that other smartphones can also be made to lose sensitivity if you hold them in certain ways. And, by the way, AnandTech, in large part, vindicates Apple’s claim of superior reception in most instances. The reason the problem seems more severe, is that it is otherwise more sensitive if you don’t use the secret handshake which, as a matter of fact, requires a pretty tight grip. Read the article again for the appropriate insights.


  3. Richard says:


    There are different issues involved. Many cell phones do suffer a reduction of signal strength/reception when body parts, including hands, are placed between the cell phone’s antenna and the tower. This is the same result as when in a structure or a stand of trees which block/absorb some of the signal.

    The “you’re holding it wrong” problem involves actual physical contact with the antenna. I am not aware of other cell phones which allow the user to make direct physical contact with the antenna in the ordinary use of the device. There is also the matter of “bridging” the cell phone antenna and the Wi-Fi/GPS antenna by making simultaneous contact with both. Once again, I am not aware of any other cell phone’s design which permits this to happen in the ordinary use of the device. If there are such units “out there” with the same design flaw, I am not aware of them.

    The difference has been demonstrated by many users by the addition of everything from a rubber band to a bumper to prevent both direct physical contact with the antenna(s) as well as the bridging phenomena. When the iPhone antenna is protected from direct contact with the user, there is still the matter of body parts blocking reception (signal attenuation as many people call it) to varying degrees. I would agree that many cell phones, especially those with internal antennas, suffer the same problem to one degree or another.

    In my view, Apple’s stubborn resistance to conceding the point is standing in the way of sound business judgment. Even the class action lawsuit is only asking for a bumper to be provided at no charge to the customer. If Apple made a “good will gesture” and simply issued a $30 in store credit toward the purchase of a bumper or other approved cover the lawsuit, its expenses, bad publicity, and distraction from focusing on product quality would disappear overnight. Even the Consumer Reports article concedes the point that the problem is substantially reduced by the use of some sort of cover.

    Speaking of the bumper, it has been reported that it is not possible to dock the iPhone with one installed. Ouch! If that is the case, what an unfortunate lack of testing.

    I have personally observed a number of iPhone 4s in the Apple stores in my area. Some of the units exhibit an immediate, rapid loss of signal strength, going from 5 bars to 3, then 2 and finally none while others exhibit no loss of (displayed) signal strength at all. This leads me to believe that some samples have the problem to a greater degree than others which leads me to believe that there may also be a production related issue. That, however, is speculation on my part.

    AnandTech’s comments about superior reception reflect an ideal circumstance, one which is unlikely to occur because of the antenna design. What many people call the “conventional grip” cradles the phone (expensive little bugger that it is) in the hope that it will not slip out of the user’s grasp and be damaged ($199 exchange fee). Oh, by the way, Apple’s TV commercials show each and every person in the commercial holding the iPhone 4 “the wrong way”. Oops!

    Is the reception “good enough” when used with some sort of cover? I suppose time will tell, but a phone with less than optimal reception in many parts of the AT&T network is not necessarily a good combination. (Booster amps and so on are probably a practical reality in somewhat less urban areas.

    I was in the AT&T store with a family member over the weekend to get a new phone. There was a couple in line ahead of us who were trading in a problematic iPhone 3G for something other than an iPhone (although they kept the 3GS). They commented that they were very unhappy with iOS 4 because it had slowed everything to a crawl and the reception was not as good as it had been before the firmware upgrade. They were also unhappy that there was no way to downgrade back to the prior iOS 3.x (they had checked at the Apple store). I had previously spoken with a few other iPhone 3G or 3GS users who had reported the same problems.

    None of these things reflect positively upon Apple. Will it result in a loss of sales? Who knows? At present sales appear to be limited by the quantity of available product so probably not, but a company’s reputation is a valuable thing which should be zealously protected.


    • @Richard, I was at an Apple Store today, getting a replacement Time Capsule — they have a recall because of defective power supplies. In any case, I did take an iPhone 4 and push and prod and attempt to duplicate the symptoms with my left hand. No success. But we have good signal strength here. I expect the worst problems occur with marginal signals.


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