iPhone 4 FAQ: What exactly did Apple do?

Free bumpers for iPhone 4 and plenty of whining from Apple boss Steve Jobs

At a special press conference Friday, July 16, Apple CEO Steve Jobs declared that any iPhone 4 user who wanted one could have a free bumper to improve signal reception. Here’s what you need to know about the anticlimax of the iPhone 4 Antenna Imbroglio.

Apple announced several measures Friday to keep iPhone 4 users "happy" and to turn the controversy over the smartphone's occasional reception issues into a "non-issue." Again.

Here's what you need to know. Apple's video of the press conference is online

So what did Apple CEO Steve Jobs actually say he was going to do?

It's pretty simple, and clear.

One, Apple has just released a software update to the iOS software. This, Jobs says, will make the "5-bars" icon display show the phone's signal strength more accurately.

This will actually have no, as in "no," effect on the phone's reception for good or ill.

Don't miss: David Letterman piles on the iPhone 4 

Two, "Everyone [who buys an iPhone 4] will get a free case." If you already bought one, from Apple for $29, you'll get a refund. The offer is good on all iPhone 4s bought through Sept. 30.

Jobs didn't define what he meant by "case." It seems to cover at least the rubberized bumper, jokingly called the iCondom by some, but it may also cover other styles.  Jobs said Apple can't make enough bumpers fast enough, so it will "source" other cases, and give customers a choice. Phone owners will be able to register at Apple.com next week for this offer.

Three, if you're still not happy, you can bring your iPhone 4 back, get a full refund, and apparently get released from your AT&T contract.

Four, and not directly related to the antenna/RF reception issue, Jobs promised to fix some problems in the phone's proximity sensor in a future iOS update.

So no hardware or software changes to the phone itself?

Correct. This isn't a software problem to begin with. Apple made it clear it's not changing the exterior antenna design: it sees no reason to do so.

So is the iPhone 4 reception "thing" over and done with?

Well, yes and no. It depends.

Jobs didn't actually admit there was any unique problem with the phone's reception. He showed videos of Apple's own tests with other cell phones, showing all of them being held and all of them dropping several bars in the process.

During the Q&A, Jobs and two other Apple execs, in response to a reporter's question, said they don't use bumpers. And here's how he phrased the lead-in to the bumper announcement: "A lot of people told us [that] ‘the bumper solves the signal strength problem. Why don't you just give everyone a [free] case?' Okay. Everyone will get a free case."

One can easily interpret that as saying "Most people don't really need it, but if it makes you happy, have a free bumper."

Well, do iPhone 4 users need it? Is there actually a unique iPhone reception problem?

Jobs finally did concede that the data from AT&T shows the iPhone 4 does drop more calls than the 3GS. But it's still a very small number. Here's how he phrased it: "Even though we think the iPhone 4's antenna is superior [to that in the 3GS], I must report to you that the iPhone 4 drops more calls per 100 than the iPhone 3GS. But it's less than 1 call per 100 than the 3GS"

There are two separate technical problems, which Apple persists in fusing together, and confusing customers with in the process. The two issues are signal attenuation – reduction - and antenna detuning. Both are well known and both lead to a loss of energy and therefore affect the signal.

What's the difference?

One of the best, simple explanations I've found is offered by antenna designer and consultant Spencer Webb, in a series of blogposts. In one, he talks about the differences between attenuation and detuning.

Essentially, when RF energy passes through the hand or head, it's partially turned into heat and lost, therefore reducing the signal. The human body does a pretty good job of this. That's why you can see the effects of signal reduction – attenuation – in any cell phone when you grip it.

How is detuning different?

Detuning relates to the fact that antennas work by resonating at particular frequencies, according to Webb. The human body concentrates radio waves more than air does. When you put your hand over the antenna, this concentrating effect ‘loads' the antenna. This loading in turn lowers the resonant frequency of the antenna and may make it harder to "squirt energy into it" at the desired frequency. For a narrow-band antenna, the type used in cell phones, this loading sometimes might "kill" it completely, according to Webb.

What's different about the iPhone is that the antenna is placed on the outside edge of the phone and when held as most people hold a cell phone – by the edges – it comes in direct contact with the hand.

The other related issue is that when held in the left hand, the skin electrically "bridges" two separate antennas of different lengths, coupling them together and causing detuning, which was noticed and tested by Brian Klug and Anand Lal Shimpi at AnandTech.com. Like Webb, they discuss both attenuation and detuning.

So what does the bumper do?

Two things: it pushes the energy absorbing material – your hand – further away from the phone's antenna than, say, a piece of duct tape, and it's a much better insulator. Webb and his colleague Steve Golson hatched a testing scheme and measured the impact of various grips on the data rates of the iPhone 4, with and without a bumper, and on the iPhone 3G.

Their conclusion: the bumper does indeed restore the iPhone 4 performance. And their tests showed that iPhone 4's electronics cause the new phone to have significantly higher upload and download speeds compared to the previous 3G and 3GS models.

So, if all cell phones suffer signal reduction and the iPhone 4 has detuning as well, why aren't more users complaining?

On Friday, Jobs implied that the relatively few official complaints, registered at the company's Apple Care customer support center, showed that the issue was overblown. According to Jobs, Apple Care has taken signal reception complaints from just 0.55% of "well over" 3 million iPhone 4 users. Doing the math, that's about 16,500 users who complained to Apple Care.

(Jobs did reveal that he "dispatched" Apple engineers, lugging test equipment, to visit some number of these users around the U.S. and collect data.)

So, even though the iPhone 4 experiences the customary cell phone signal reduction, and in addition significant detuning, the vast majority of users won't see dropped voice calls (though they could have slower 3G data transfers, which may or may not be noticeable).

The reason, says Webb, is because 1) you don't need a big channel for a voice call and 2) the voice codecs and compression algorithms and all the rest of the related technology is really forgiving: your signal has to be really stomped on or really weak to start with to drop a call.

Plus it helps, as Jobs mentioned yesterday, to have your own AT&T base station located on the company's headquarter campus. Not everyone has that option….

If that's all Apple announced, what did Jobs talk about the rest of the time?

Well, he did a fair amount of whining. The press conference began with a YouTube musical video by Jonathan Mann, called "The iPhone Antenna Song." "The media loves a failure in a string of successes [pictures of iPod, iPhone, Mac, iPad]. The facts won't ever matter…Sure I can make it [the signal loss] happen but in terms of daily usage, I've yet to drop a call….This whole damn thing is stupid." It perfectly framed Jobs' attitude.

A sample of his comments:

"We've been working our butts off to come up with real solutions."

"This is life in the smartphone world. Phones aren't perfect."

"I think it's important to understand the [true] scope of the problem, because the data [we have] lead you to the conclusion that it's been blown so out of proportion, it's incredible."

"When we have problems, and people are criticizing us, we take it personally. Maybe we shouldn't. Maybe we should have a wall of PR people keeping us away from it, but we don't. We all read those stories. And we care."

"The press surrounded this. Maybe people thought we were perfect and they saw this as an example where we weren't, and thought it would be fun to jump on it."

"I guess it's just human nature when some organization gets successful, there's someone who wants to tear it down. I see it happening with Google…Would your rather we were Korean companies rather than American companies?"

So did Apple make a mistake here?

The exterior antenna placement is not a mistake, an error, or a glitch; the phone isn't "broken." It was a deliberate design decision to create a thinner phone with improved battery life, made possible by moving the antenna to the outside. In some circumstances, sometimes, that can lead to a dropped call, or lower data rates. But even then, iPhone 4 outperforms the earlier models.

People are going to keep buying the iPhone 4 in vast numbers. Most will never have any problems. And to those that do, Apple will offer, for free, what amounts to an over-oversized elastic band that costs very little to manufacture.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for "Network World."

Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnww

Email: john_cox@nww.com

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