iPhone 4 is jinxed

It seems that the guns and knives are out against iPhone 4 and how. Apple's latest toy is plagued with jinxes since launch and  the troubles are only escalating.

The issues started when reports of a possible antenna design flaw causing calls to drop, began trickling into technology news sites and discussion forums. Users are divided, some claiming that they do not experience the problem and an increasingly vociferous majority asserting that they do face the problem. Meanwhile, tech sites ran a battery of tests and confirmed that the issue was caused by the antenna design. I am reproducing a  image from Anandtech, which conducted testing on the device.

They report that the steel band shown in the image is the external antenna of the iPhone. Today, most smartphones have internal antennas positioned at the bottom of the 'phone but Apple apparently chose this design for improved reception. This also created a huge potential problem.

To summarise what the engineers are saying in non-technical terms, the bottom left corner of the phone, where there is a gap between the two antenna's is a 'dead zone'. If a user grasps this corner his hand he creates a 'contact' between the two antennas which affects the reception and causes the signal to drop. Holding the phone in this manner is being described in forums as the 'death grip'. The problem is caused because the antennas are external to the device, and human skin is a conductor. Engineers have said this is a design flaw and ideally, Apple should have put an insulative coating on the antenna.

Apple's initial response to the problem was apparently to tell people 'not to hold the phone that way' which justifiably annoyed people. In an already complicated world, do you want to think about how you should be holding your phone?. Alternatively they suggested buying a case (bumper) which would reduce the incidence of the problem. Since Apple sells the official bumpers at $30, obviously this suggestion did not go down well either. And a demand went up in forums for free bumpers, which Apple has not yet agreed to provide.

From this point on, the issue just got murkier. Apple, choosing not to address the design issue, instead issued a release claiming that there was a software issue which cause the iPhone to display the signal strength incorrectly. Now it appeared there was a hardware issue and a software issue, which only went to prove that a hapless AT&T had a worse network issue than the one that people were already cribbing about.
 Meanwhile, BGR leaked a document purporting to be a customer script for Apple Care. In a nutshell, it is reported that Apple reps are asked to deny that there are any antenna problems, and advise them to hold the phone correctly or use a bumper. Basically, leave the issue where it is. While the leak could not be verified, it obviously added fuel to the fire. By now, the Apple and anti-Apple camps were engaged in full-on (and often irrational) battle, mostly polarised on the lines of "Apple fanboys are dumb and suck"  and "Android fanboys are dumb and suck". While this has generated many pages of digital content being stored free on someone's servers, it has not really solved the problem.

There was worse to come. Consumer Reports reviewed the phone and despite giving it a top rating across smartphones, refused to give a 'recommend' rating based on the antenna reception problem. Till now, the Apple War was being fought on technology sites, among geeks and the majority did not know or care. But Consumer Reports caters to the average user, who wants to read an informed opinion before buying, and suddenly, the issue was mainstream. Probably on the mainstream news too, for all I know.

Hard on the heels of the Consumer Reports findings, came more rumors that Apple had deleted threads in its Support Forums which linked to the report and discussed it. Of course, it could be argued that the report did not have a place in support forums which are meant for troubleshooting, and also that Apple has a right to control content on its site. But it did not go down well in the light of all the negative PR that the company had already amassed. Apple was basically looking like an ostrich, burying its head in the sand and refusing to admit that it had a problem.

Demands and rumors for a recall of the iPhone 4 have already started circulating, with industry experts predicting that a recall of the millions of devices sold would be horribly expensive for Apple, yet seeing this as the only way out for the company.

If  you are like me, and prefer to use Handsfree, this might have been a potential solution for the antenna problem. But just today, I noticed that TUAW (an Apple blog) has put up a post noting that the iPhone 4 is having a problem pairing with certain Bluetooth devices. Could this be the final straw that broke the camel's back?

After all this reportage, I want to share my opinion. While I am not an Apple user, my sympathies are with the company. Apple has always taken justifiable pride in its impeccably designed products  and user experience and so far, literally no company has managed to overtake them. I believe that flawed products can sometimes accidentally come out of any company stable. As long as they are honest about rectifying the issue and customers don't suffer, it's fine. And the world should move on quickly.

I have read some speculation that the whole issue is nothing but orchestrated anti-Apple propaganda, but I tend to disagree with that. After reading hundreds of user comments, I realise that there are genuine iPhone loyalists out there who are grappling with the issue. Yes, the frequently vicious attacks on Apple and Steve Jobs tend to drown it out, but they do not detract from the fact that there is a problem. If it is being hyped, it is because Apple as a company attracts that hype and fanfare. And their self-proclaimed quest for perfection (which differentiates them from the perpetually and cheerfully 'beta' approach of  Google) makes them vulnerable. So does their phenomenal market share growth and profitability. Leaders will be attacked, it is the law of the jungle. Hasn't Microsoft been bearing this for years? They must be quite relieved now that the heat is off them and the experts who were criticising their approach to the smartphone market have moved on. (The Kin debacle is quite forgotten thanks to the iPhone disaster)

I for one, will wait to see what Apple does and I trust that they will do the right thing. But for once, we in  India should be happy that we are way behind the technology curve. Imagine if people here had bought the iPhone 4 at Rs. 30,000 plus and had to deal with this!

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