iPhone 4 antenna issue molehill, not mountain, says expert

Apply the 'Vulcan iPhone pinch' to hold Apple's phone, suggests antenna engineer

The uproar over the new iPhone's reception problems is much ado about nothing, an antenna expert said today.

"We're making a mountain out of a molehill," said Spencer Webb, an antenna engineer with 11 patents to his credit, and the president of AntennaSys, a mobile device antenna design and consulting firm.

Webb was referring to the ruckus over complaints by iPhone 4 owners that they were unable to make calls, maintain a connection, or keep a strong signal on their new smartphones when they held them in specific ways.

Webb stressed that Apple is not an AntennaSys client. In fact, he hasn't yet received the iPhone 4 he ordered.

Reports of call and data signal strength problems in the new iPhone 4 surfaced immediately after consumers purchased the phone or received their pre-ordered devices. Apple has acknowledged that holding the iPhone 4 can diminish the cellular or data signal, making it difficult to place calls or retain a data connection. Among the company's suggestions: Hold the iPhone 4 differently or buy a case to cover the antennas embedded in the steel band that encircles the phone.

"I don't think this is a design defect," said Webb, who has posted a pair of blog entries analyzing the complaints and offering his opinions. "This was a design choice by Apple."

Moving the antennas to the outside of the iPhone 4 -- contrary to the designs of most modern phones, which typically have their antennas inside the case -- let Apple keep its smartphone smaller, Webb said. "I'm willing to guess that Apple had the industrial design -- the glass on front, glass on back and the steel band -- in place before any of the guts of the phone were considered," he said.

Any design that would have improved reception would have made the iPhone bigger, Webb said. "Apple is putting ten pounds of stuff in a five-pound bag," he wrote in a blog post last Saturday. "Put air space around the antenna to make it less sensitive to the presence of the human hand? Fuggetaboutit. Air doesn't sell phones."

Webb doesn't dispute the fact that the outside antenna can cause some users, in some places, to experience a signal shortage, although he downplayed the significance of most tests he'd seen people post on the Internet.

The variation in the results -- some iPhone 4 owners said they had trouble getting a signal, while others disputed those findings -- was most likely due to cell tower placement and the user's location. "If you're covered by several cell sites, you can't know what's going on," Webb said. "You can't tell what's really happening."

Other factors, he noted, include difficulty in determining what the iPhone's signal strength indicator -- the basis for most people's conclusions -- really represents.

He acknowledged he had not had an opportunity to read the report published Wednesday by the technology site AnandTech that quantified the signal loss, or attenuation, when the iPhone 4 is held in certain ways.

If the iPhone 4 was suspended in mid air, with nothing or no one touching it, it would likely perform admirably. "But the antenna isn't just the antenna, it's the entire field around the antenna. If there's enough air around it outside the case, you're fine," Webb said today in a telephone interview. "But there are environmental factors that impede a signal. And the human hand is an environmental factor."

Specifically, placing part of one's hand over one of the two slots in the steel frame degrades antenna performance, as the human body's conductivity bridges the separate antennas, changing the length of the cellular antenna, which is designed in a specific length to best receive and transmit the cell frequencies. "There's no way around this," said Webb, again noting that it was a design choice mandated by Apple, and to a lesser extent, AT&T and the Federal Communications Commission's testing.

A case would help, said Webb, but probably wouldn't solve everyone's problems. Suggestions to do things like place tape over the slots are pure "hokum," he said.

The most likely solution is that users will learn how to cope by holding the iPhone 4 slightly differently than they held earlier models, or even other phones. That's essentially the same advice Apple CEO Steve Jobs has reportedly given users in a series of infrequent, and impossible-to-verify, e-mails.

"The iPhone is so cool that we'll forgive Apple that we're going to have to do the Vulcan iPhone pinch to hold it," Webb said, referring to his term for holding the phone with the thumb on one side, the middle finger on the other, and the index finger on the top back.

Webb's bottom-line advice for users of the iPhone 4? "Give it a couple of weeks," he said. "Use it like you used your last phone. If it doesn't make you happy, return it to Apple. But, give it a chance, and 24 hours ain't it."

Not everyone agrees with Webb that the iPhone 4's problems are trivial. Several iPhone owners have already filed lawsuits against both Apple and AT&T over the problem, with at least three cases seeking class-action status in both California and Maryland federal courts.

Lawyers for one of the plaintiffs, Christopher Dydyk of Cambridge, Mass., accused Apple of "massive fraud" by shipping allegedly defective iPhone 4s.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

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