On Thursday, I hoped that Apple CEO Steve Jobs would admit there's a problem with the new iPhone's antenna and apologize for pretending there wasn't. I didn't get that apology. Not even close. Instead, in a defensive press conference at Apple's headquarters on Friday, Jobs argued that the new iPhone offers terrific, out-of-this-world reception. He blamed the media for whipping up a frenzy out of a "fact of life" that affects every phone on the market. As Jobs sees it, the only problems with the iPhone 4 are the pesky "laws of physics," which pretty much ensure that anyone who holds a mobile phone in her hands is asking for trouble. The only reason people have been focusing on the iPhone is that blogs keep singling Apple out, perhaps because "when you're doing well, people want to tear you down."
Still, if you want to be a total jerk about it and keep insisting there's a problem with your magical iPhone, Jobs has an offer for you. "OK, great, let's give everybody a case," he said. Happy now, whiners?
I wasn't invited to Apple's event; I followed along on various live blogs. (All quotes here are as transcribed by Engadget and GDGT.) I cringed as I watched. Reports leading up to the event—including a New York Times article that quoted an unnamed Apple rep—suggested that Apple would own up to a problem in the phone's hardware or software. But Jobs kicked off the conference by playing "The iPhone Antenna Song," a YouTube video in which a guy croons, "The media loves a failure in a string of successes." Things got worse when Jobs took the stage and offered a blizzard of statistics to suggest the problems people are reporting aren't unique in the phone market.
Apple, he said, has sold more than 3 million iPhones in the last three weeks, yet only 0.55 percent of purchasers have called the company with reception problems. Very few people are returning the phone, he continued, fewer than returned the iPhone 3GS. He showed off demonstrations of the BlackBerry Bold, the HTC Droid Eris, and the Samsung Omnia II that exhibited the same problem that's been reported on the iPhone—when you hold them a certain way, their signal bars begin to drop. "Phones aren't perfect," he said, and the problem reported with the iPhone is a "challenge for the entire industry."
But Jobs' numbers are misleading. From the very first reports of trouble, Apple has publicly insisted that there's no reception problem with the iPhone; it even sent its AppleCare technical support staff "positioning statements" telling them to inform customers that "iPhone 4's wireless performance is the best we have ever shipped." It's no wonder, then, that not very many people called Apple to complain about problems. It's been clear to everyone who bought the iPhone 4 that Apple would not acknowledge its reception problems. Why would you waste time on the phone with technical support when you knew it would be no help?
What about the fact that so few people are returning the phone? Jobs is right—it is an indicator that the iPhone 4 is a great device that people want to keep. That doesn't mean, however, that the phone isn't afflicted with an annoying flaw. The fact that people aren't returning the new iPhone doesn't mean the problem doesn't exist. More probably, it means that customers were waiting to see how Apple, a company known for good customer service, might respond to the problem.
Jobs' claim that the same call-dropping problem can be observed on other phones also misses the point. Even if that's true, Jobs elided the clear evidence that the issue is much more obvious and repeatable with the iPhone 4. (When a reporter asked, "I can't get my [BlackBerry] Bold to drop right now, maybe you can show me how to do it?" Jobs responded, "You may not see it in certain areas.") If it were the case that people were simply out to attack Apple, why didn't we see people posting dozens of videos showing last year's iPhone, the 3GS, dropping calls when you held it wrong? Jobs' data offered a clue why—as the CEO admitted, it turns out that the iPhone 4 drops more calls than the iPhone 3GS.