Apple's Fix for iPhone Woes: Poor Reception Will Be Displayed Accurately

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Eight days after CEO Steve Jobs told a customer that it was a “nonissue,” Apple Inc. published a letter to iPhone 4 owners on its Web site acknowledging that holding the phone in a certain way can eliminate its data signal.

But the company framed the issue as a matter of how the iPhone 4 displays its signal strength, not whether the device’s antenna was poorly designed. Unlike previous models, the new iPhone has a stainless-steel band wrapping around the perimeter, acting as the antenna itself.

“We were stunned,” the Apple statement says, “to find that the formula we use to calculate how many bars of signal strength to display is totally wrong. Our formula, in many instances, mistakenly displays two more bars than it should … Users observing a drop of several bars when they grip their iPhone in a certain way are most likely in an area with very weak signal strength, but they don’t know it because we are erroneously displaying four or five bars. Their big drop in bars is because their high bars were never real in the first place.”

Apple said it would issue a free software update to all iPhone owners—including users of previous models—that would more accurately display the strength of their connection to AT&T’s cellular network, which is widely despised for its poor quality. The software will not in any way improve iPhone reception itself.

At issue is what some consumers discovered almost immediately after buying the iPhone 4 on its launch day, June 24: using a finger to cover a thin black slit on the device’s lower left side would cause its signal to steadily drop, in some cases to zero, and then resume a steady connection as soon as the slit was uncovered. Apple says that when the band is not being touched, the iPhone 4 gets the best reception of any device it sells.

Steve Jobs’s dismissal of a customer’s concern—“Nonissue. Just avoid holding it in that way”—was widely seen as a gaffe. Even Apple partisans like the highly influential Jon Gruber, who criticizes Apple with about the same frequency that George W. Bush criticizes Dick Cheney, described the CEO’s advice as “not reasonable.”

Gizmodo, the technology blog that has bedeviled Apple like no other adversary this year—it bought a prototype iPhone 4 and published every detail it could, costing Apple untold millions in free publicity—has started a Facebook petition calling for the company to issue free rubber “bumpers” that obviate the antenna problem.

Issuing software updates and ugly rubber add-ons may be all that Apple can do. When Jobs introduced the iPhone 4 on June 7, he spoke at length about how essential the steel band and its interruptions were to the phone’s design. Of eight major new features he chose to spotlight, these were the very first.

“That stainless-steel band that runs around is the primary structural element of the phone, and there are these three slits in it,” Jobs said, leading in to some hyperbole that he may now regret. “It turns out, this is part of some brilliant engineering, which actually uses the stainless-steel band as part of the antenna system.” The Apple-friendly audience noisily hooted and cheered. “It’s got these integrated antennas right in the structure of the phone. It’s never been done before! And it’s really cool engineering!”

A final line that may haunt Jobs: “When you hold this in your hands, it’s unbelievable.”

Bloomberg News, citing unnamed sources, reported this week that Apple would begin selling a Verizon-compatible iPhone in January 2011.

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