It’s now well known that Apple’s new iPhone 4 has a serious antenna problem.
At first Apple said “Don’t hold it that way”. That didn’t go down too well.
Now Apple have released a carefully worded statement, which you can read here.
We dismantle Apple’s statement to see what we might read between the lines.
What we know
Reception on every phone gets worse when you hold it.
Reception on iPhone 4 gets much worse when you hold it the “wrong” way.
Unheld, iPhone 4’s antenna performance is exquisite, perhaps the current best-in-class.
We also know that the number of bars shown on any iPhone is generally a bit more optimistic than on other phones — but that is not the issue here. The differences are tiny. This, as we will see, is a distraction.
What Apple said
We have discovered the cause of the drop in bars
It is simple, surprising, we were stunned!
We found a mistake in the way we calculate how many bars to show
we’ve been showing too many bars!
The big drop in bars was because the high bars we not real
We will fix this by “adopting AT&T’s formula”
What Apple did not say
Apple neither confirmed nor denied that holding the iPhone 4 in a certain way causes a dramatic drop in signal strength. We know that it does and that it’s a serious defect.
Apple gave no details on the “mistake” they say they found. In particular, they did not say that the mistake was in any way related to the optimistically high bar count demonstrated by the reverse-engineers.
Apple gave no details on “AT&T’s recently recommended formula”. In fact, it seems, no details are available, anywhere. Nada. (someone please prove me wrong about this!)
Apple did not say that the “mistake” they found was causing the dramatic loss of signal, which of course it isn’t. Nor did they say that the new formula would fix the problem, which of course it won’t.
Whats really going on?
Steve Jobs knows a serious problem when he sees one, and this is a serious problem. The purely technical fix will mean re-engineering. No doubt that is already in progress, but it will take months to move to production.
In the meantime, what to do? Apple must ride through the problem on a PR wave. Jobs can see no other choice.
So what’s the plan?
Jobs must create a distraction. “We found a bug! Boy, are we surprised!”
Then he must link the bug to the problem. This is where it gets complicated, because there is no linkage.
So Job’s intends to create a linkage, by changing what the bars mean!
That will take some PR. Jobs proposes to educate the market about what happens when you hold a phone, and to re-educate us all about what the bars mean. For this he needs backing, which is where AT&T come in.
Jobs want us to think he means, AT&T, the technical authority on wireless. He really means, AT&T, our business/marketing partner. In fact, the iPhone 4 antenna issue has nothing whatsoever to do with AT&T, in either capacity. AT&T are simply playing the role of grand savior in a grand charade that will carry Apple through this “minor technical hitch”.
In the process, AT&T will gain some badly needed cred, the iPhone 4 will be rescued (by obscuring the real issue) and phone users will become a little more aware about what they can do to get their phone to work better.
To understand the details requires a bit of explanation…
What the bars mean now
The bars show signal strength, but in a dumbed down way.
Signal strength is like the water pressure in your shower. If there’s not enough pressure, you have a miserable shower, or no shower at all. So with your phone, if there’s not enough signal, you have a bad connection, or no connection at all.
We can un-dumb things easily, by giving signal strength a number, like everything else we measure. The units don’t matter. We’ll call them wits, because they’re sort of like power (watts).
There is a lowest signal level at which the signal is “lost”. We will call that signal strength 0 (zero) wits. At this level almost every phone will drop the connection and show no bars.
Then there is a highest needed signal level at which the connection is as close to perfect as it will ever get. On a 3G phone, this level is about 20 wits. At and above this level most phones show 5 bars.
What happens between 0 and 20 wits depends on whether you’re talking or downloading. A voice call needs only a tiny signal, maybe 5 or 6 wits, before it starts to break up. A data connection behaves differently. Below 20 wits, the data rate is lowered. You can still download, but it takes longer and longer, depending on how few wits you have.
In practice the signal strength can get much higher than 20. Standing right near a cell tower, the signal might be as high as 60. Yet there is no way the phone can take advantage of the surplus. There is a (technical) speed limit. So most phones continue to show full signal strength, typically 5 bars.
That’s a bit like having a speedometer that reads only up to the speed limit.
Could this be the real “mistake” that Apple is referring to?
What the bars will come to mean
Apple and AT&T have agreed (I speculate) to let the bars show true signal strength, from 0 to (say) 60!
This will change the game completely. The change will be immediate (it’s a tiny software change) and it will be accepted because (a) it is sanctioned by AT&T, (b) the iPhone 4 is an otherwise magnificent phone and (c) lots of other social reasons that Jobs understands perfectly.
How that will “fix” (the perception of) the iPhone 4 problem
The next best thing to fixing the problem is to show the user when he may have a problem.
Holding an iPhone 3GS “naturally” causes a drop of only about 2 wits (ref).
Holding an iPhone 4 in the same (wrong!) way can easily cause a drop of 20 wits or more.
Under the current system, 5 bars may only mean 20 wits. So while you think you have a strong signal, you may not have enough to survive the grip of death.
Under the new system, a signal of 20 wits may only show up as only one bar. It won’t seem nearly as strange to lose that one bar by changing your grip. Having two or more bars will mean you have more than 20 wits, hopefully enough to survive the grip of death.
The rest will be PR history
People with iPhone’s will find themselves with generally fewer bars than their friends, but their phones will work just fine. Apple will tout how their phones work flawlessly all the way down to one bar, where other phones start to degrade at higher bar counts. Jobs may even throw in a switch to “use the old formula”, as if to say “we could also pretend we have more signal, if we wanted to.”
All of a sudden the public debate will be about which of the two systems is “right”. Other phone manufacturers will be forced either to follow Apple’s “lead” (and seem to be playing catch up) or to defend the old system. Either way the attention will no longer be on the iPhone 4 antenna.
The scheme doesn’t have to work. It just has to work long enough for Apple to fix the hardware.
Bob Cringely wrote an article about this article. In the discussion that followed, Bob reminded us that “with AT&T losing its U.S. iPhone exclusive in January, Apple doesn’t care what AT&T thinks”. Bob is right, and I went too far supposing that Jobs had asked AT&T for their opinion. So I retract that.
Rather it seems that the reference may have been a challenge to AT&T. My suspicion is that Apple are indeed using something AT&T put out confidentially, but not quite the way AT&T intended it to be used. Apple seems to be saying, we’re not playing the same old bars game. So far, it seems, AT&T have not commented, nor has anyone been able to point to any “recently recommended formula” in an AT&T released document.
Apple also said they would make bars 1, 2 and 3 a bit taller. This reinforced my conjecture that Apple wants users to understand that having few bars is not necessarily a bad thing. Having more bars just means you can survive all kinds of antenna abuse, like covering the mystical black gap.
Read my self-assessment.