Signal woes ‘won’t erode’ iPhone 4 appeal

No question about it, Steve Jobs isn’t handling the fallout from the iPhone 4’s antenna problems very well.

Still, it will take more than a few dropped calls to tarnish the Apple smartphone’s image, say Canadian technology experts.

It’s unlikely the antenna issue will dampen iPhone sales, said Carmi Levy, an independent technology analyst and ITBusiness.ca blogger based in London, Ont. Virtually every phone on the market suffers from the kind of hand position interference that’s dogging the iPhone 4, he said.

“I can easily reduce the number of bars on my BlackBerry, for example, by holding it a certain way.”

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Levy said some models are more or less sensitive than others, as with any piece of consumer electronics. “It’s up to the user to figure out subtleties of day-to-day use that could influence reception — including how to hold the phone, what cases to use, or specific parts of buildings to avoid.”  

Another Canadian expert expressed a similar view.

The iPhone will still continue to attract many buyers mainly because the flaw has an easy workaround, according to Dominira Saul, director of user experience design at Montreal-based firm Akendi.   “This sort of thing happens to many other phones. The solution is simple: Users can buy an inexpensive case or bumper for the phone or hold the phone in a way that doesn’t interfere with the antenna.”

The appeal of iPhone apps and the smartphone’s cool factor will save the day for Apple, according to Saul — an iPhone user himself.

Levy predicted the iPhone would still “sell in the millions and remain most sought after handheld in the foreseeable future.” But he said the device is a victim of its own popularity. “Any consumer device under the intense klieg lights of uber-publicity will suffer disproportionately when the inevitable flaws, however minor, are discovered.”

Unfortunately for Apple, he said, the flaw cannot be “diluted” across a variety of handset offerings.

Apple essentially sells one phone, and it rigidly controls the parameters within which that phone is sold and used. This leaves the company very little wiggle room. “There’s nowhere to hide, no alternative iPhone product the company can recommend while it sorts out the engineering glitches with its flagship handheld,” the analyst said.

Software excuse hard to swallow

As to the what’s causing the intermittent signal challenges, however, experts don’t buy the Apple line that it stems from software issues.

The dropped calls and poor signal levels are linked to a “poorly designed” iPhone 4 antenna, Saul said. “A software upgrade may be needed, but that is definitely a separate issue.” 

Over the past few weeks, there’s been a profusion of blogs and complaints on various online forums about the new iPhone’s diminishing signal levels when the device is held a certain way.

On Monday, Apple in a sought to explain  the reason for these reception challenges.  In a statement, the company attributed them to a software issue involving signal strength bars.  

To fix this Apple said “within a few weeks” it would be sending out a software update to adjust how signal strength bars are calculated and displayed.

Raising the software upgrade issue, could be meant to divert attention from the original design problem, industry observers say.

The iPhone 4’s antenna isn’t located within the device, but is a thin metal strip wrapped around the phone’s outer edge.

This arrangement makes for a much thinner and sleeker looking handheld.

However, if you hold the phone in a way that covers up the left antenna and the phone’s lower portion where the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth signals are handled, you lose most of — or all — of your signal, and calls may be dropped.  

“Apple is backed into a corner,” Saul noted. “The iPhone has a design problem, but Apple has only just released the phone, so it’s unlikely it can make any immediate hardware changes.”

The situation, he said, is very unfortunate for a company that’s built its reputation on cool product designs and excellent usability.  

Without a redesign, the only other solution is to hold the phone differently. “Unfortunately, that’s the last thing you would like to tell your customers if you’ve built your reputation on good design,”  Saul said.

Online comments suggest that users, by and far, aren’t buying Apple’s explanation for the problem.

Stevesst wrote in response to the letter on Apple’s iPhone 4 support forum: “Sooooo, I’m having a hard time finding the connection with how [the software formula] calculates bars and the way people hold their phone and dropping bars.”

Many others shared the writer’s confusion, especially since Apple says the formula has been in play since the first-generation iPhone.

Another comment from Steviejobz had this to say: “I love how Apple thinks its customers are idiots. So we are to believe that Apple has not figured this out after 4 years of making a handset?”

While the iPhone’s reception display may be misleading, most people seem to think fixing that isn’t going to address the death-grip dropped calls.

Sneezymarble, wrote on macrumors, “Surprisingly, no matter how I hold my iPhone 3G at my house it never completely loses signal and I’m always able to make calls. But, if I place my pinky finger over the little black strip on the bottom left side of my iPhone 4, my signal drops and I can’t make any calls. That, Apple, has nothing to do with the number of bars being displayed.”

With files from Paul Suarez, PCWorld.com

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