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Spillikins #74. Apple Acknowledges Its Technical Ignorance in Phones
Although it is summer, every day brings so much new information that can literally blow one away. Can it be the hot days that make companies and people generate events at an incredible speed? I don't even know what to begin with as all topics are quite tasty; well, let's take a look at the Apple iPhone 4 and the ongoing scandal for the starters.
I wrote about the phone reception problems in the last issue of Spillikins, and the story develops exactly as it was described there:
Unofficially Apple claimed this not to be a hardware problem, but it is difficult to believe. With the help of the software Apple may do the trick and get rid of the weak signal indication not to irritate the customers, but it will not solve the issue of missed calls, unavailability of data transfer, etc. This problem should not be handled in such a way.
There are only two available solutions. To sell the handsets as they are and not to recall them (bumpers can be provided free of charge, which will go down well with the customers). The recall can hit Apple hard and they will not follow this route. The hardware nature of the problem will be denied until the end.
And what can we see now? Apple took the easy way. They deny the possibility of a technical problem, hardware failure and go on insisting that the iPhone 4 antenna issue has a software origin. Here I need to emphasize that Russian users haven't experience such problems, the antenna works as a charm. Apparently, the issue has something to do with the AT&T frequencies. There are no problems on other networks using GSM 900/1800, whereas AT&T frequently exploits the 1900 bandwidth in the U.S. Anyway, that's a different story, which is not that important for the exposition here.
On July 2, Apple posts a note entitled "Letter from Apple Regarding iPhone 4" in its press release section. The document appears to have been carefully prepared by the company lawyers to avoid any statements that could make the situation worse. A week after the beginning of the sales, there were three class action lawsuits filed against the company accusing Apple of being aware of the phone reception problems and yet releasing it. In some of the lawsuits, AT&T is considered as a respondent, too. Anyone who is experiencing the same problem is welcome to join in at any time. You can find one of such lawsuits at Gizmodo (in the light of their recent information brawl with Apple, the guys must be having some real good time over there now).
A Web rumor, according to which Apple instructed the sales personnel to say that the phone may work not so well if the lower left-hand corner is blocked, added oil to the burning flames. The bumpers can mitigate the problem, but the retailers are strongly prohibited to give those away for free. The move is quite logical, since providing free bumpers could be perceived as an implicit acknowledgement of the issue, which is not in Apple's interest. The class action lawsuits would then have better odds for winning and there would be no way of stopping them. There is another peculiar point in the sales manual Ц i.e. not to offer any warranty service to customers with such problem. What does that mean? In my opinion, that is another way of disregarding the problem, as if everything were fine and no fix was required. I think, in reality, there is no fix for the problem at the moment; the company has not discovered a way around for the AT&T network yet.
At the end of June, there appeared some new open positions on the Apple website, with three of them related to antenna engineering for the iPad/iPhone. That is one odd coincidence immediately publicized by almost every news resource as a proof of the existence of the reception problem. The story became known under a scathing name of "death grip." Personally I like that loaded designation of the iPhone 4 problem.
However, let's get back to the notorious letter from Apple to the iPhone 4 users. The document requires some translation from the Apple language into the human one; therefore I will present you the original pieces and provide my comments on them.
To start with, gripping almost any mobile phone in certain ways will reduce its reception by 1 or more bars. This is true of iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, as well as many Droid, Nokia and RIM phones. But some users have reported that iPhone 4 can drop 4 or 5 bars when tightly held in a way which covers the black strip in the lower left corner of the metal band. This is a far bigger drop than normal, and as a result some have accused the iPhone 4 of having a faulty antenna design.
At the same time, we continue to read articles and receive hundreds of emails from users saying that iPhone 4 reception is better than the iPhone 3GS. They are delighted. This matches our own experience and testing. What can explain all of this?
In effect, Apple is using an old trick Ц i.e. putting a question and answering it. That is a good argumentation method, which works just fine. The way the question is formulated usually contains not only the matter itself but also some additional information aimed at preparing the audience. In our case, such information is that the iPhone 4 reception is good, and better than that of the predecessor. Do you accept such truth? Personally I don't. The reason is that a product with numerous complaints cannot be better than one without those. If 80 automobiles out of 100 can go at 200 km/h but another 20 won't start at all, whereas all 100 cars of the previous generation had a speed of 150 km/h, then the latest generation cannot be considered a successful one. Those 20 cars simply do not work. The same story is here. If some technology does not work the way it is supposed to on a significant number of units, it is a problem, and a huge one. But let's continue.
We have discovered the cause of this dramatic drop in bars, and it is both simple and surprising.
Upon investigation, we were stunned 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 2 more bars than it should for a given signal strength. For example, we sometimes display 4 bars when we should be displaying as few as 2 bars. 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 4 or 5 bars. Their big drop in bars is because their high bars were never real in the first place.
To fix this, we are adopting AT&T's recently recommended formula for calculating how many bars to display for a given signal strength. The real signal strength remains the same, but the iPhone's bars will report it far more accurately, providing users a much better indication of the reception they will get in a given area. We are also making bars 1, 2 and 3 a bit taller so they will be easier to see.
HmmЕ Well, except for the mumbling, I have nothing else to say. That is how propaganda works when white is proclaimed black and vice versa. The story can have a turn for the worse for Apple, nothing to say of AT&T requirements. If the real story ever gets revealed in future by an Apple engineer, the company will be simply crucified so bad it will wish that had never happened. At the moment, the situation is bad, and although not catastrophic, likely to deteriorate.
Apple has chosen the most obvious defense strategy. That is, to acknowledge its technical ignorance in order to get away with the responsibility, to avoid judgments about the faulty antenna design. Such version may appear plausible but is falling apart at the seams. For example one can ask why the phone can display those bars correctly, without losing any calls when a bumper is on. That is an obvious question, which hasn't been brought up. If it is the signal approximation algorithm that is wrong, then neither a case or a bumper or anything else should make any difference. The signal should remain the same. This funny story is to have a lot of unexpected turnabouts.
The rest of the message tells us that the unsatisfied customers can return the device and get their money back within 30 days after the purchase. I don't think that there will be many of those as the iPhone 4 is still in deficit and selling much better than expected. And it will remain so as there is no reason for the volumes to go down. This whole story is a telltale sign of Apple's technical level; it reveals that the company engineers are not that good at phones. However, due to the fact that the company image is strong, sometimes more of a religion than common sense, the sales won't be affected.
I love Pulp Fiction, especially the moment when Bruce Willis character tells the girl "Zed's Dead, Baby, Zed's Dead". The same happened to Microsoft and their project of KIN phones for the young. By offering a $30 monthly plan Microsoft clearly scared young people away. Nobody commented the sales figures, but according to the rumors the first month saw the sales of mere 500 devices. Amid PR activities around the launch it is surely a failure. Then Microsoft announced that the project would be closed down and the developers would join Windows Phone 7 team. I think it shows how Microsoft understands the mobile market. Thankfully, Windows Phone 7 team is quite realistic and claims they need five years to catch up with the rivals. The only thing I can say about KIN... Rest in peace. You had no chance from the outset.
To my mind it is a question of time when the current Nokia CEO steps down. He has no charisma and could not offer the right decisions at the right time. The patent war with Apple is his style (he is a lawyer by education and working background). But Nokia needs other skills, some of which can be boasted by Anssi Vanjoki, who leads Mobile Solutions from July 1. Unfortunately one person is too many and not enough at the same time. Unless the whole business structure of Nokia changes, the company will not return to its ways. But I would like to emphasize that Vanjoki is the right choice, moreover, his appointment was the only possible solution. I hope he can revitalize the company and move it forward.
During the presentation in Barcelona in 2008 Vanjoki said that Nokia attacks and not defends. It's a pity, but these words happened to be out of touch with reality and no we see Nokia defending and it is done rather sluggishly. At least in the smartphone market. That is why I am a bit skeptical as to the promise to reclaim its position.
On Nokia Conversation blog, Anssi expressed several interesting ideas. Firstly, he denied the comments of Nokia PR department spread by Reuters that Nokia N8 is the last Nseries model on Symbian. His words can be interpreted in terms of prospects for other products on Symbian^4 to be launched. This story illustrates broken communication inside Nokia when one remark of its PR department leads to a week long discussion centered around Symbian and whether it is really dead and Nokia does not see any potential in this OS (I exaggerate a bit, but one can assume that judging by the heat of the discussion).
Another interesting idea of Anssi dealt with the closure of Symbian-Guru.com. Its founder placed on the site a huge text explaining, why he cannot write about Nokia products on a regular basis anymore and the reason for such developments. Nokia was hurt very much as it was a serious PR blow for them. One of the journalists suddenly decided not to support the company products and it looks as if he became disillusioned with their quality. Anssi mentioned that the company did not ignore it, but this is not enough. The blow is too heavy. Main discussions evolve around the fact that Android became more interesting than Symbian. Having analyzed the statistics on communities dedicated to Android and Symbian worldwide I can say that Android is growing like a weed. In terms of media exposure the platform is in front of almost everybody. Only Apple with its Apple iPhone can successfully compete with Android in this respect.
This week we had more information leaks around Nokia E7-0 (an analogue of N8 with QWERTY keypad and a 4" screen). Look at one of the videos, which shows how the manufacturer remotely deletes all data on the device. Negri Electronics mentioned in the previous Spillikins claims to be under the investigation of the third party hired by Nokia. The espionage saga goes on. I am sure Nokia will be unable to stop all leaks. They were unsuccessful before and nothing is likely to change.
To avoid repetition we advise you to read about the questions and their prehistory here.
This week's question:
Question No 5.
You had no time to answer the previous questions (which forms a new tradition), but I hope this letter will be luckier and you will provide the comments to our readers.
Nokia Messaging service was launched by your company together with Beeline in Russia. Can you say why it is not available for the customers with the credit payment system? Thank you in advance.
Eldar Murtazin, Editor in Chief, Mobile-Review.com
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Published 06 July 2010
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