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Apple to address iPhone 4 controversy Friday

By , Network World
July 15, 2010 10:14 AM ET

Network World - In the latest act of the iPhone 4 tragicomedy, news sites are reporting that Apple is inviting some reporters to a press conference Friday morning at the company's Cuptertino, Calif., headquarters, presumably to address complaints about the newly-released phone's antenna

No further details have been made available, and there's no statement on the Apple Web site. The arrival of Apple's iPhone software chief, Scott Forstall, on Twitter this week sparked speculation that Apple might try to address the iPhone 4 issues via the social media route.

First Look: Apple's new iPhone 4 (slideshow) 

The iPhone 4 has been widely successful: the company sold 1.7 million phones in the first three days of sales. But soon some users began complaining, and YouTubing their complaints, that signal strength fell dramatically when they held the phone normally.

The iPhone 4 is the first model to use outside antennas: they're integrated into two stainless steel bands that form the side of the phone, separated by insulated slots. But gripping the phone normally, detunes the antenna, in some cases (apparently in areas of already-marginal signal strength) severely enough to block or drop a call.

Spencer Webb, founder of AntennaSys, an antenna design and consulting firm, has blogged lucidly on some of the known problems with the phone's design. All cell phones suffer some signal attenuation when being held; the iPhone 4 external antenna is also detuned by direct contact, lowering the antenna's frequency, and making it harder to squirt energy into the desired frequency, he notes.

The drama heated up again on July 12 when Consumer Reports gave the iPhone 4 its highest rating but refused to recommend it because its own tests showed severe signal attenuation (but those tests have been criticized for the way they were conducted). Yesterday, CR reported that Apple's rubberized bumper, sometimes jokingly called the iCondom, which fits around the edge of the phone covering the steel bands, does improve the signal. 

The scope of the problem is entirely unknown. Apple fan forums and Apple's own support Web site are awash with complaints, and with debate from those who say that in fact the new design has improved their reception. But it doesn't seem to have had any impact on sales.

Still, that hasn't stopped demands for everything from free bumpers, to a full-scale iPhone 4 recall, though given the phone's design it's unclear how Apple could change the phone itself to alleviate something that's a problem for some users but not for others.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.
Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnww
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Read more about wireless & mobile in Network World's Wireless & Mobile section.

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