The Great iPhone Antenna Kerfuffle of 2010

Unless you’ve been under a rock for the past 3 weeks, you’ve undoubtedly heard about the controversy surrounding the iPhone 4’s antenna — or you’ve been holding your iPhone 4 in your left hand.

The kerfuffle has to do with the new design of the iPhone 4’s antennae, which is composed of the stainless steel band along the edge of the iPhone. One segment handles WiFi, Bluetooth, & GPS, and the other handles the GSM signal that actually makes the iPhone, well, a phone. The problem appears to happen when the area where these two antennae meet is bridged by a user’s hand. It is believed that skin contact antennuates the signal and results in the signal dropping or being cut off altogether, resulting in the ceasing of data transfer, or a dropped call.

I have been able to reproduce the issue on both my iPhone 4 and my wife’s. At home, where we are in a strong signal area, I can only drop the signal readout by one or two bars. At work, where I usually only have 1 bar due to being in a low signal area, and our building is practically a faraday cage, I can drop it to No Service.

Now, granted, being right-handed, I haven’t really had much of an issue with this personally. I really don’t hold my iPhone in such a way as to bridge the antennae. However, this does not negate the fact of a serious issue existing with the antennae.  

Over the past few weeks, this issue has been gaining traction in the media, culminating with Consumer Reports rating the iPhone 4 as the best smartphone on the market, but slighting it with a recommendation to not buy it because of the antenna issue. Ouch.

Well, all of this has certainly grabbed Apple’s attention. Prior to the Consumer Reports review, Apple had said they discovered their algorithm for calculating the signal display was erroneous, and they would issue a software fix to more accurately represent how many bars are truly present. They also said they would make the bars 1, 2, & 3 slightly taller to be seen easier. 

Honestly, I think this was a lame excuse from Apple and it doesn’t address the underlying problem. Heck, it really didn’t even acknowledge the actual problem very well. However, that may change…

Since the review from Consumer Reports Apple announced they would be holding a press conference on Friday, 16 July 2010. Apple didn’t tell invitees whether or not the briefing would be addressing the antenna issue or rather pertain to some other announcement regarding the iPhone 4 (I’ve heard wild guesses such as white iPhone 4 preorder date, Canadian release date, and, most wildly, Verizon iPhone announcement. I think none of those are true).

I do think the main topic of the briefing will surround the antenna of the iPhone 4. I think Apple will admit to there being a flaw, that was simply overlooked in testing (we know from Gizmodo’s scoop of the iPhone 4 a while back that the iPhone 4 was tested externally in cases to disguise it as a 3GS). I see this playing out with three different solutions, in order of magnitude:

  1. Software fix coming to update the modem firmware to adjust for attenuation by user’s hand.
  2. Free Bumper case to any iPhone 4 owner upon request.
  3. Product recall.

I think scenario 1 will be a shoe in, with a possible appearance of scenario 2. This would be a good move. There is a chance scenario 2 will be the only solution offered, which would sadly still not address the underlying issue. My hope is that the issue can be alleviated by a software fix alone, though I do believe the hardware is the true culprit.

Scenario 3 would be the defcon 5 last resort. A recall and reissue of fixed hardware would be a pain for customers, and extremely costly to Apple. Investors would probably freak over this, too. However, it may actually be the best possible PR move, and in the end would build a rapport with customers who would think of Apple as doing the right thing. Still, this would be extremely arduous for all parties involved.

I truly do hope this can be fixed in software. I’ll report back Friday.