Apple plans iPhone 4 press conference Friday

Apple plans a Friday-morning press conference to discuss the iPhone 4, as controversy continues to heat up around the flawed new device, according to reports on a couple of reliable tech news sites.

The New York Times's Miguel Helft and Nick Bilton report:

Apple said that it plans to hold a press conference on Friday to discuss the iPhone 4 as concerns about problems with the device’s antenna continue to mount. Apple spokesman Steve Dowling would not give details of who will speak at the Friday 10 a.m. event, which is expected to be held at the company’s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif.

Macworld's Jason Snell also reported on the upcoming press conference.

"My money's on free bumpers to calm the freakout," says Boing Boing's Xeni Jardin.

Consumer Reports on Wednesday followed up on its testing and reporting on the iPhone 4's antenna problems, confirming that the Apple bumper case solves the problems. Apple has recommended the $30 case as a fix, but Consumer Reports maintains that Apple should pay out of its own pockets to fix the device.

The problem, reported by many irate iPhone 4 customers, is that signal strength drops, rendering the iPhone unusable, if users hold the phone by the lower-left corner, in such a way as to bridge two separate antennas running around the edge of the device.

Consumer Reports has given contradictory evaluations of the iPhone 4, ranking it as its top-ranking smartphone in a recent report, but also saying it "can't recommend" buying the device.

Consumer Reports senior editor Mike Gikas tried to explain the contradiction. "We don't want to take anything away from the phone. In all the areas we test that are important to smartphone buyers, such as display, and phoning capabilities, it did well, it's an engineering marvel," he told me in a phone interview Wednesday. "It just has this peculiar Achilles heel."

Apple says the iPhone 4's problems are a software issue, caused by a glitch in the way the phone's iOS operating system reports the number of bars of signal. The company said it plans a software patch to fix the problem. But MobileCrunch's Greg Kumparak says a look at the beta of iOS 4.1 shows the fix doesn't work

And a couple of tech blogs look at the strange nature of this problem. Engadget's Nilay Patel says they're unable to say how bad the problem is:

 [I]t's not at all clear what the real-world effects of the antenna issue actually are for most people -- as we've repeatedly said, several iPhone 4s owned by the Engadget staff (including our review unit) have never experienced so much as a single dropped call, while others suffer from signal issues that results in lost calls and unresponsive data in a dramatic way. What's more, at this point Apple's sold well over two million iPhone 4s, and we simply haven't heard the sort of outcry from users that we'd normally hear if a product this high-profile and this popular had a showstopping defect. Honestly, it's puzzling -- we know that the phone has an antenna-related problem, but we're simply not able to say what that issue actually means for everyday users.

That's pretty much my situation too. I was willing to write off the first few complaints I saw as the usual beefing by people who hate Apple, along with an unlucky few Apple customers who got the lemons that any assembly line occasionally extrudes (even Apple's magical assembly lines).

However, based on the e-mail I'm getting, and the comments on this blog, the problem seems to be more widespread than normal product-launch hiccups.

On the other hand, it's hard to tell just how widespread the problem is, because many people (including me) are very happy with their devices.

Engadget polled prominent tech bloggers and journalists who own iPhones to find out how satisfied they are.

As you'll see, most of our peers seem to be doing perfectly fine with their iPhone 4s, but the people who are having problems are having maddening issues in an inconsistent way. We'd say it all comes down to the network -- particularly in New York City, where AT&T just completed a major upgrade -- but even that isn't a consistent factor in predicting experience. Ultimately, we just won't know what's really going on until Apple comes clean and addresses this issue (and the growing PR nightmare it's become), but for now we can say with some certainty that not everyone is affected, and those that are seem to be in the minority.

Technologizer's Harry McCracken sums up: "The iPhone 4’s innovative antenna-wrapped-around-the-case improves reception. Except when you use the phone in an area with marginal reception, aren’t using a case, and bridge the gap in the lower left-hand corner with your hand. In that situation, it can be deadly."

And, finally, here's a pro tip for Apple PR: you know you have a bad PR problem when David Letterman has a Top 10 List about you.

Seriously, when the history of this incident is written, I won't be at all surprised to learn it was the Top Ten list that induced Apple to hold a press conference about the problem.

Mitch Wagner

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is a freelance technology journalist and social media strategist.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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