Apple crisis: How many iPhone 4 signal problems?

The clamor concerning the iPhone 4 and its widely-reported 'death grip' issue is gathering ever more intensity.

"Apple will be forced to do a recall of this product," Professor Matthew Seeger told Cult of Mac this morning. "It’s critically important. The brand image is the most important thing Apple has. This is potentially devastating."

With such pressure on Apple (AAPL) to show leadership, I figured today might be a good time to try to offer a little clarity as to the background here.

It seems there are not one but two separate signal-related issues plaguing iPhone 4 -- and Apple has released statements on both of these, but do they go far enough?

The first issue is the widely-reported death grip problem, in which gripping the iPhone at the lower left corner can sometimes cause the device to cut off a connection.

I would stress that this doesn't seem to affect everybody -- my colleague, Mitch Wagner, has had difficulty reproducing it, he writes.

The second issue is one in which the signal strength indicator bars on the iPhone 4 would inaccurately reflect the strength (or lack of it) of network reception.

Software, hardware or both?

Apple issued extensive guidance on that second problem, promising, "a free software update within a few weeks that incorporates the corrected formula."

That statement also suggested (without making a definitive claim) the death grip issue may be software-related,

"Gripping almost any mobile phone in certain ways will reduce its reception by 1 or more bars. This is true of iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, as well as many Droid, Nokia and RIM phones. But some users have reported that iPhone 4 can drop 4 or 5 bars when tightly held in a way which covers the black strip in the lower left corner of the metal band. This is a far bigger drop than normal, and as a result some have accused the iPhone 4 of having a faulty antenna design," the company said.

Apple's statements on the first problem haven't been particularly satisfactory.

Initially, Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, attempted to characterize the situation as a "non-issue".

"Just avoid holding it that way," he famously said.

In one specific statement, Apple said:

"Gripping any phone will result in some attenuation of its antenna performance, with certain places being worse than others depending on the placement of the antennas. This is a fact of life for every wireless phone. If you ever experience this on your iPhone 4, avoid gripping it in the lower left corner in a way that covers both sides of the black strip in the metal band, or simply use one of many available cases."

Consumer Report critiques - that's got to hurt

Consumer Report yesterday declared the iPhone 4 the best smartphone ever, but failed to recommend it precisely because of Apple's disappointing response to the flaw.

"Our findings call in to question the recent claim by Apple that the iPhone 4’s signal strength issues were largely an optical illusion caused by faulty software that ‘mistakenly displays two more bars that it should for a given signal strength'," Consumer Report said.

Instead Consumer Report advised, "Cover the antenna gap with a piece of duct tape or another thick, non-conductive material. We also expect that using a case would remedy the problem. We'll test a few cases this week and report back."

How did Apple miss this flaw?

Think back to the iPhone 4 prototype stolen from a bar and eventually sold to Gizmodo. Some may recall this was being tested while held in a case which made the device look just like an iPhone 3GS.

I'm guessing Apple may have failed to identify the iPhone 4 death-grip problem because the device was tested inside that same 3GS disguise -- inside a case.

Is Apple in panic?

I think so.

I note the company's move to remove and then reapprove critical comments citing the Consumer Reports report from Apple's discussion forums overnight.

This suggests the company hasn't quite made a decision as to an approach to the problem as yet.

Critics are saying Apple -- as a premium electronics company -- cannot simply get through this huge morass of negative publicity by telling customers to 'go duct themselves'.

This is likely reflected internally, as the company searches out a strategy which can minimize the damage being done to its brand, its iPhone and its reputation as a leading CE firm.

While attempting to find a good stance on this, the company briefly made some time by releasing its second, lengthier statement.

This was (incorrectly) seen by many in the media as a move to address the death-grip issue. I don't think it was, though that wasn't eloquently clarified.

The extent of Apple's response gave it more weight. Also, by accepting it had made a (more minor) mistake, Apple bought itself time to address the more serious problem.

Time's running out.

I suspect Apple experts are looking into what can be done to mitigate or remove the death-grip problem within the existing model, even to the extent of slight modifications to the design.

This would make sense and would mean future models of the iPhone 4 will be less, or not at all, affected.

Should this be Apple's chosen approach then don't be surprised if iPhone 4's are in short supply for weeks to come, nor if the promised July introduction of the device into 18 additional markets is delayed for a period, with the company citing 'supply constraints'.

Apple should perhaps clarify the current situation for once and for all, as the wave of negative publicity crashing across US TV networks last night prove it is running out of time to figure out its position.

It seems a good time for the company to clarify just how many problems we are looking at here. Is it one problem which can be completely rectified with a software update, or two problems, one of which is simply by design.

Must we 'Hold Different', or simply 'Hold Tight'?

Meanwhile some sources are now discussing a product recall...

UPDATE:

Despite talk of a product recall, I'm thinking a free distribution of iPhone bumper cases makes more sense, as does Citigroup analyst Richard Gardner, who sees such a move as a "fair, and very cost effective" solution.

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