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Surviving the 24-Hour News Cycle

The problem with a massive oil spill in the Gulf remains unresolved, there’s the usual partisan political bickering (make that shouting), and the economy is still in the toilet, more or less. You just know that actor/director Mel Gibson is one bigoted and abusive maniac on the basis of those widely-circulated telephone recordings.

Considering all the problems that affect the world to a greater or lesser degree, I’m reasonably certain the controversial iPhone 4 antenna, and the Consumer Reports refusal to recommend the product, can’t survive very long in the headlines. The 24/7 cable news stations have already begun to move on to other topics, leaving the tech bloggers and a few tech publications to argue over whether Apple should recall the new iPhone, rush out a fix, or just sit back and wait for the outcry to blow over.

It’s a sure thing that the outcome really isn’t certain, because it all depends on whether Apple’s “fix,” changing the numbers of bars displayed in marginal signal conditions, will be sufficient to calm the restless masses. If you believe Apple, the iPhone 4 works better in regions where you might not even get much of a connection on other mobile handsets. Any hand position that covers an antenna on such a device might be sufficient to reduce sensitivity.

What is most curious is that this issue went undiscovered all these years, as tens of millions of cell phones were sold around the world. It took the arrival of the iPhone 4, and Apple’s bold claim of superior sensitivity, to cause customers to put it to the test.

Now published reports do clearly demonstrate that the iPhone 4 was never the only device to adhere to the laws of physics. The question is, of course, whether the antenna should have lain bare or been shielded on the new case. Remember that in the old days, most mobile devices had pull-out or fixed antennas placed at the top of the units.

Then the antenna was clearly visible, and easy to touch with or without a secret handshake.

However, The FCC and other agencies began to test mobile handsets for potentially dangerous radiation emissions. The jury is still out over whether too much cell phone radiation might cause harm, but there’s no sense not being cautious. So today’s mobile devices stick the antennas at the bottom of the unit, as far away from your ear as possible.

Then again, I see some people placing their handsets to their heads, and, when talking, moving the bottom of the unit (the part that contains the antenna mind you) up to their mouths, not realizing that the built-in mics generally work fine without this clumsy maneuver. Besides, if you’re driving, you really need a hands-free system of some sort, such as a special headset or car-based interface. Many states here in the U.S. otherwise bar use of a mobile phone, and I can understand why. I think some people seem utterly glued to their cell phones.

In any case, I don’t know for certain whether the iPhone is more sensitive to special antenna handling than other gadgets, although it may well be that Apple erred in their placement.

I don’t know the engineering issues, but Apple might have fared better to put the unit’s antennas at the rear, although I dare say someone, somewhere, would have devised a secret handshake that would trigger loss of reception.

In any case, Apple still remains silent on the issue in the wake of the CR story, which is so many of us continue to write articles on the subject. They have also reportedly begun to delete threads from their support forums that discuss that somewhat unfavorable CR review. I say “somewhat,” because the magazine otherwise seems to like the product, and they don’t really determine whether this alleged shortcoming in antenna placement truly makes the phone less useful in the real world, past the carefully staged tests.

Indeed, a published report, quoting an antenna specialist, asserts that CR improperly tested the iPhone 4. So why am I not surprised?

Also remember that the iPhone 4 has been out less than a month, so anyone who is dissatisfied can simply return it for a refund. I gather that restocking fees may not even apply, particularly if the units are brought back due to some sort of perceived product defect.

Going forward, if Apple’s software fix doesn’t isn’t sufficient, some suggest that Apple should either give out free bumpers, or arrange to have a special coating applied to the antenna so the danger that your sweaty palms will kill the signal will be lessened.

That, however, doesn’t address what might be done about the units already sold. Perhaps Apple might simply offer to either exchange the units, or just hand out free bumpers or cases to satisfy angry customers.

On the long haul, Apple needs to learn how bad news can easily get out of hand, regardless of the factual basis behind the unfavorable stories. Their famous spin control machine could must do better.