What Apple CEO Steve Jobs should do about the iPhone 4's antenna woes.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
July 15 2010 4:37 PM

Steve Jobs Owes Us an Apology

What the Apple CEO should do about the iPhone 4's antenna woes.

iPhone.
iPhone 4

Apple plans to hold a press conference on Friday to address the iPhone 4's antenna problems, and I'm completely stumped about what CEO Steve Jobs is going to say. I'm stumped because this is new territory for the company. Apple never schedules hasty press conferences—when controversy erupts, it is rarely transparent with reporters, customers, federal regulators, or anyone else. Instead, Apple prefers to create its own reality. As reports of dropped calls and poor reception mounted over the last few weeks, Jobs' first instinct was to insist that the phone is perfect, and that it's the users who are crazy. "There is no reception issue,"he allegedly told one customer. So far, the company has offered only one fix —it plans to make the iPhone 4's signal bars "more accurate" so we'll all be able to see how awesome the phone's reception really is. What about that Consumer Reports test saying otherwise? Apple seems to have deleted references to Consumer Reports' non-recommendation from its support forums.

All of this suggests one possible path for the press conference tomorrow: doubling down. As others have speculated, perhaps Jobs will perform a few onstage tests showing off the iPhone's great reception. He might also cite reviewers and customers who've e-mailed him to say that they're getting an amazing signal on their phones. (Perhaps even a revolutionary signal. No—the best signal ever!) He could also point out that the iPhone 4 is already a blockbuster. Apple sold 1.7 million units in its first weekend, its biggest launch ever, and there's no sign that people are returning their phones en masse. Sure, we could see a few small concessions. It's possible that Apple will offer customers free iPhone "bumpers"— cases that snap around the iPhone's external antenna and seem to reduce or eliminate the reception problem. (Or Apple could just reduce the price; the hunks of rubber now sell for a ridiculous $29.)

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That would be the easy thing to do. Nothing major—no product recall, no apology, no admission of error. But I hope that the out-of-nowhere press conference signals a shift for Apple—a revolutionary decision to kill off the company's critics-are-always-wrong philosophy. I also hope that Apple will finally offer a credible explanation for what's wrong with the iPhone. And I hope Jobs says just one more thing: I'm sorry.

It's time that Apple admits what has become obvious to everyone: It made a mistake. There is more than enough evidence to suggest that there is a real design flaw in the iPhone. In addition to the tests by Consumer Reports and the hundreds of complaints online, look at the signal-measuring app devised by Engadget and The Unofficial Apple Weblog, which shows the iPhone 4 experiencing signal problems when it's held along its lower left seam.

I've experienced the problem myself in my home in Palo Alto, Calif. Reception gets markedly worse when I hold the phone in my left hand (which, by the way, is not an outlandish way to hold your phone, even if you're right-handed). I've had at least five dropped calls over the last week, which feels like a higher rate than I'd experienced on the previous iPhone (and, in any case, is a much higher rate than I'd like). True, I don't know if this is Apple's fault or AT&T's, but because the two are inseparable in the United States, that distinction isn't important. What matters is my experience—the iPhone 4 is a lousy phone.

That said, I don't want to return it. I still find the iPhone a better personal Internet device than any other out there. But I would like the company to acknowledge that I'm not an idiot, and that I'm not imagining these problems. It should concede that the iPhone's antenna should have been designed so that it doesn't fail when it's held in a relatively common way. Sure, it's not a major mistake; it doesn't seem to be affecting everyone, and there are relatively straightforward—and, for the company, relatively cheap—ways to address it. (Consumer Reports' suggestion: Use a piece of duct tape to cover part of the antenna.) But it is, nevertheless, a mistake, and Apple ought to say so. A simple "Sorry, we goofed, and here's how we're going to fix this" would suffice.

For Apple, saying sorry could bring great dividends. More than any other company in tech, it strives for perfection, and over the years it has hit that goal with startling frequency. You can count its failures over the last decade—the Power Mac Cube, 2008's relaunch of Mobile Me, the iPod Hi-Fi—on one hand. It's this string of hits that has led to Apple's pre-eminent position—it is the only company that can get hordes to line up for and pre-order products that they've never even used.

But Apple's reluctance to admit a mistake threatens that position. I'm not saying the iPhone 4 will see an immediate drop in sales if Apple continues to jerk its acolytes around. But how can you trust a company that insists, against all evidence, that demonstrable problems are merely an illusion? We'll all surely remember this episode the next time Apple launches a phone, tablet computer, or some other doodad—and we'll think twice about lining up for it before we've even seen it.

Some online are suggesting that Apple should issue a complete recall of the iPhone 4. Though that would be expensive—analysts' estimates run into the billions—it would certainly generate a lot of goodwill with consumers. I doubt that Apple will go that far, and I don't think it needs to. It's been less than 30 days since the iPhone went on sale, so anyone who really hates their phone can still return it free of charge.

Instead, I'd suggest that Apple offer us free bumpers but that the giveaway should come as part of a larger admission. The company needs to say that it has handled this issue poorly and that it will seriously investigate the iPhone's reception issue. It should also make a long-term pledge—that the next time the Internet erupts with allegations of a problem, it won't resort to its standard defensive posture. If Apple continues to insist that iPhone users are idiots, it won't have the luxury of talking down to its customers for much longer.

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