In Apple's iPhone 4 Blunder, Form Trumped Function

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Steve Jobs unveils the iPhone 4 on June 7. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

One of the great stories about Steve Jobs comes from the 1980s, when Apple engineers were designing the original Macintosh. According to Andy Hertzfeld, one of the engineers on the Mac project, Jobs flipped out because the circuit board in the Mac wasn't pretty enough, and he made the designers redo it. The engineers wasted time and money trying to appease Jobs, but in the end went back to their original design. It wasn't pretty, but it did have one key advantage: it actually worked.

I'm reminded of that story these days as Apple is suffering a black eye over the antenna of the iPhone 4—especially since engineers had warned early in the phone's development that the antenna design could hurt reception, according to Bloomberg.com. But Apple had this really clever idea and just couldn't let it go. Why not put a stainless-steel frame around the phone and have that frame serve as the antenna? Jobs made a big deal out of this innovation when he introduced the phone in June, calling it "brilliant engineering" and boasting that the antenna design "has never been done before."

Well, now we know why. As the world discovered once the iPhone 4 started shipping in late June, when the phone is held in a certain way—known as the death grip, but really just the way people hold mobile phones—the signal weakens and sometimes the calls get dropped. Consumer Reports, which tested the phone in its labs, says it can't recommend the iPhone 4 and suggests a stopgap fix: covering the exposed antenna with a piece of duct tape. (How's that for elegant?) But the consumer organization added what everyone already knows: the real fix has to come from Apple. Things have gotten so bad that Apple is expected to hold a news conference on Friday to address the criticism. Some people are saying Jobs should recall the device, a move that could cost up to $1.5 billion, according to Bernstein Research analyst Toni Sacconaghi.

Shouldn't Apple have seen this coming? I'm not an engineer, but even I know that if you put your hand on an antenna, you mess up its performance. Yet Apple plowed ahead with the design. That brings me back to that Hertzfeld story from the Macintosh days. Jobs is not an engineer, but he likes to think of himself as a world-class design guru. He believes he is not creating products but art. This is partly why Apple puts so much emphasis on the way things look. But this time around, I think Jobs got seduced by what seemed to be a really cool and clever design, and his engineers couldn't talk him out of it.

When complaints arose, Jobs first said people just needed to hold the phone differently. Then he said there was no problem. Apple PR suggested users could alleviate the issue by putting a rubber case around the phone. Later, Apple claimed it had discovered a mistake in the software that determines how many signal-strength bars to display and promised to fix that. The last one was so ridiculous that even Apple fanboy bloggers mocked the company for saying such a thing. Lately, Apple has quietly begun handing out refunds to unhappy owners.

The larger question is whether this will hurt Apple's business and give a boost to phones that run Google's rival mobile-operating system, Android. My sense is that Apple might lose some sales, but the company is still better off trying to tough this out. A product recall would be very damaging to Apple's brand, which is based on the promise of beautiful tech gadgets that are easy to use. Worse yet, it would require Jobs to admit he'd made a mistake—something I don't think he has ever done before.