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From 3/2009 until 5/2011, I wrote a monthly column for the Missoulian'sMontana InBusinessMonthly supplement. My archives are here and you can subscribe to my RSS feed with your feed reader or by by email.

Apple’s iPhone 4 Rollout Not as Smooth as Usual

My August, 2010 Missoulian InBusinessMonthly column

Apple is a company known for precise image control and a very specific corporate identity, but the launch of the iPhone 4 has been very different from its usual smooth product releases.

The iPhone 4 is the latest and most successful of all models of the mobile phone and touch-screen computer, selling close to 2 million in the first three days of availability: iPhone 4 Sales Top 1.7 Million – Apple PR

But I’m sure heads have rolled at Apple and the corporate brass have made a blood pact to never do this badly again with a product.

The problems began before the launch. A few months before the release, a prototype of the iPhone 4 was left in a bar one night by one of the developers. It was found and sold to a tech blog as a news scoop, and that disrupted Apple’s planned secrecy until launch.

The lead-up to the launch also had rumors that customers would be able to get an iPhone 4 without the required (and restrictive and expensive) AT&T contract. But that didn’t pan out, and in mid-July, an antitrust lawsuit over that exclusive contract gained class-action status: IPhone antitrust lawsuit goes class action – Jul. 12, 2010

But the biggest iPhone issue is signal reception strength and quality. That was a problem for the last model, but for version 4, it got more negative press, and faster. There’s already at least one class action lawsuit over reception quality.

And in mid-July, Consumer Reports announced that it wasn’t recommending people buy the iPhone 4 at all due to reception problems: Consumer Reports Electronics Blog: Lab tests: Why Consumer Reports can’t recommend the iPhone 4.

The problem is that the outer metal band of the iPhone is part of the antenna, probably engineered that way to overcome reception problems with earlier models of the phone.

But if you hold the iPhone a certain way, your hand covers the band and the faint electrical conductivity of your skin affects the antenna. If you already have a weak signal, your call will drop.

Apple has issued instructions on how to properly hold the phone. And Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, has responded to early complaints by saying, “Just don’t hold it that way:” Apple responds to iPhone 4 reception issues: you’re holding the phone the wrong way — Engadget

Different blogs said to get one of the Lance Armstrong “Live Strong”-style 99-cent bracelets and stretch it around the outer edge to insulate the antenna from hand contact. Cut some slots for the charger, and you’ve instantly got better reception.

Then Apple uncharacteristically admitted there is something wrong with iPhone reception. Or not. Sort of.

In a news conference on July 16, Jobs said the antenna issue “has been blown so out of proportion that it’s incredible.”

But Apple relented and will give a free carrying case or, if requested, a refund to all iPhone users over the next few months. However, Apple didn’t clearly admit there was a reception problem, or issue a recall for iPhones, as many think is needed: 7/02/10: Letter from Apple Regarding iPhone 4 – Apple PR

One tech writer came up with a possible reason for Apple’s goof: the cleanliness of the research and development facility. Apple’s testers probably always wore gloves when working with prototypes, so the skin effect wasn’t known. And when the prototypes went out into the real world, they may have been tested only in areas with strong reception.

It remains to be seen if this bad PR takes a toll on Apple. The rumors are stronger now for a Verizon iPhone by early next year, which will give Apple millions more potential customers. See: iPhone arrival nearly official @ Mark Ratledge .com.

I think the iPhone 4 will continue to sell well, even after Consumer Reports has maintained its recommendation not to buy the iPhone 4.

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