Apple readies iPhone 4 problem-solving update

Following a couple random rumors that iOS 4.1 is impending, a stereotypically terse response apparently sent from Steve Jobs’ iPhone confirms that the highly anticipated update is, in fact, “coming soon.”

This will be the third update to iOS 4 since its initial release in June, and if speculation about iOS 4.1 is accurate, this update will finally be the software that should have been on the iPhone 4 when it launched.

I am sure you’re familiar by now with the notorious antenna issue that has plagued some segment of the iPhone 4 population. The infamous “antennagate” caused a great uproar–although Steve Jobs and Apple have maintained that the attenuation of the signal power is perfectly normal, that only a small percentage of iPhone 4 users are experiencing the problem, and that if iPhone 4 users would just hold the smartphone differently the issue would be resolved.

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Apple held a press conference revealing a plan to offer free iPhone 4 bumpers or cases in order to address the non-issue for the whiners who couldn’t just hold the phone the “right way”, and the Apple executive responsible for revolutionary iPhone 4 antenna left the company, but unfortunately for Apple the antenna problem is not the only problem–or even the most critical problem–with the iPhone 4.

Toward the end of the “antennagate” press conference, Steve Jobs quickly glossed over a reported issue with the proximity sensor and mentioned in passing that Apple was looking into it for a future software update. Well, the proximity sensor is actually a more serious problem for the iPhone 4 than the antenna issue and many iPhone 4 users have been anxiously waiting for that update.

The proximity sensor is supposed to determine when the iPhone 4 is in a call and close to your face, and disable the display so that you don’t press the touchscreen with your cheek while you talk. However, the iPhone 4 proximity sensor is flaky and fickle–resulting in random beeps as numbers are pressed, muting calls, putting calls on speakerphone, initiating Facetime video chats, or dropping calls and starting new calls to some other contact stored in the iPhone 4.

Talking on an iPhone 4 with the proximity sensor issue is like playing Russian roulette with your call–you never really know what will happen. The reason this is a bigger issue for business professionals than the antenna issue is because the antenna issue has mitigations available to minimize or eliminate the problem.

It is possible to hold the phone differently, or to use some sort of case to reduce the effect of the attenuation, but there is no magic bumper or new way to hold the phone that solves the proximity sensor issue–unless you just do all of your calls on speakerphone so the iPhone 4 doesn’t touch your face.

Apple has already released iOS 4.0.1 which addressed some mythical problem with the way signal bars are calculated, uncovered by Apple while investigating “antennagate”. Then there was iOS 4.0.2 which patched a serious security flaw in iOS used to jailbreak Apple devices by simply visiting a Web site.

However, neither of those updates addressed the fundamental issues that plague many iPhone 4 users. Apple has not officially stated that iOS 4.1 will fix the proximity sensor issue–but Apple has a problem admitting that its devices have a problem at all, so officially fixing it is out of the question. AppleInsider reports, though, that “time spent with the latest beta build shows a marked improvement” in the proximity sensor functionality.

Keep your fingers crossed that the third time’s a charm. If the rumor is true, two months, three updates, and a rubber bumper later the iPhone 4 will finally be able to live up to its potential as a cutting-edge smartphone.

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