Apple rolls out free case program for iPhone 4 owners

CEO Steve Jobs had promised the move last week

As promised last week, Apple Inc. today launched a free case program for iPhone 4 owners who are having reception problems with the popular new smartphone.

Apple set up a Web page and a specialized iPhone app that tells iPhone 4 owners how to get a free protective case known as a bumper, which encircles the metal antenna band that surrounds the iPhone 4's outer edge.

The iPhone 4 Case Program applies to iPhone 4s bought before Sept. 30, and it requires iPhone 4 users to download a special application from Apple's App Store to get a free case. In addition to enabling users to select rubber bumpers, the app also offers users a choice of several plastic cases from third-party vendors.

iPhone 4 owners must sign in with an Apple ID to get access to the case selection, and once a case or bumper has been chosen, the app no longer allows you to look at the cases. In other words, buyers must choose wisely, since it doesn't looke like they'll have a chance to change the order after they make a decision.

Apple says the estimated shipping time for the cases is three to five weeks.

For those who already bought Apple-branded iPhone 4 Bumpers -- which originally sold for $29.99 -- Apple says it is already refunding the purchase price, plus taxes and shipping fees. Customers who bought bumpers from an AT&T store must fill out a rebate form (download PDF) to get a reimbursement.

Today's move comes a week after Apple CEO Steve Jobs led an unusual -- and hastily called -- news conference to explain why the iPhone 4 appears to have reception problems when held a certain way and to offer free cases to iPhone 4 owners. That event, held at Apple's headquarters last Friday, highlighted reception "problems" of several smartphones from other vendors, with Jobs stressing that all of them have reception or signal issues of some sort.

Apple continues to highlight antenna performance issues online.

Complaints about the iPhone 4's reception surfaced within hours of its debut, as buyers complained that touching the external antenna -- embedded in a steel band that encircles the case -- often resulted in dropped calls or caused the signal strength indicator to plummet. Apple acknowledged that holding the iPhone 4 a certain way could weaken the signal, but told consumers to hold their phones differently or buy a case. It also later released an update to the smartphone's operating system that more accurately shows signal strength.

The concerns about the new phone prompted Consumer Reports to warn that it could not recommend the iPhone 4 to buyers.

Despite the public relations black eye caused by the reception problems -- a Microsoft exec last week compared it to Windows Vista -- Apple officials this week said the company continues to see strong demand for the device, which went on sale on June 24.

Even so, research firm IDC says the brouhaha around reception issues has prompted some current iPhone owners to delay upgrading to the new smartphone.

The iPhone 4 is offered in 16GB and 32GB models for $199 and $299, respectively. And, according to Apple's online store, an iPhone 4 bought today isn't expected to ship for three weeks.

On a related note, Apple today also released a short statement saying that the white version of the iPhone 4 will now not be available until later this year.

Ken Mingis is managing editor for news at Computerworld and also oversees the site's Macintosh Knowledge Center. His e-mail address is kmingis@computerworld.com. You can follow him on Twitter at  @kmingis, or subscribe to Ken's RSS feeds:
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