iPhone 4 Antennagate Returns, Still a Non-Story

You know when you see a story appear, but it isn’t a real story, and you know it isn’t a real story, but you also know it’s going to appear everywhere? Well, that’s how I felt today when I saw an article on The Inquirer titled “Apple fails to fix Iphone [sic] 4 antenna for Verizon.” The sub-title wittily added “Can’t keep a faulty design down.”

Article author Lawrence Latif opened with the following totally-not-inflammatory statement;

JUST HOW LONG does it take for Apple to fix an antenna? That is the question Verizon Iphone [sic] 4 users must be asking after finding that the problems that plagued the device at launch over six months ago still persist.

I’m still trying to remember what problems “plagued” the iPhone 4 (s aapl) back when it was launched. All I could think of were those interminable queues of eager customers snaking away from the Apple Store on London’s Oxford Street. Thousands of us, standing there for hours, not getting anywhere fast, burning gently in the summer sun. But our new iPhones? They were just fine. No plagues, as far as I can remember, not that day, or since.

However, my problem isn’t with biased (read “negative”) coverage of the iPhone (or even “Iphone”, if you prefer) but with the utter lack of critical thinking that fuels this sort of coverage, and the gossip that follows. First, let’s do an experiment. If you own a “shiny toy” of your own, go grab it and follow-along; we’re going to reproduce the infamous Death Grip!

The Grip of Death, in Three Easy Steps

STEP 1. Grip your iPhone in your left hand. No, grip it. No, really, really grip it. Smother its left-edge as much as you possibly can. It doesn’t matter how uncomfortable that feels, just do it. I know — that’s a completely unnatural way to hold any phone, but look, this is just how it’s done, ok? Are you gripping/smothering the thing so hard you’re actually obscuring your view of the screen? Good. Move to Step Two.

STEP 2. Try loading a web page. Yeah, I know, it’s not so easy to tap the screen because of the impractical way you’re gripping the thing, but, please, in the name of scientific discovery, persevere!

STEP 3. Behold! If you’ve got your smother-hold just right, you may notice a slow-down when loading web pages. Congratulations — you’ve done it! You have proved that the iPhone 4 is obviously fatally flawed and we can all agree our honeymoon with Apple is well and truly over! Let’s ditch our iPhones for Blackberry (s rimm) and Android (s goog) devices instead!

Admittedly, I’m overstating things, but I’m trying to make a point here about how silly this whole non-story is. Here’s the deal: Absolutely every wireless device suffers some signal attenuation when smother-gripped by big, fleshy human hands. That’s pesky physics stubbornly obeying its own immutable laws, not, as some bloggers and tech press would prefer to believe, an egregious oversight by Jonny Ive and Apple’s engineers.

Interesting, But Insignificant

While demonstrating the Death Grip (or Death Hug, as people are referring to the Verizon (s vz) version) in a video is obviously great for clocking-up YouTube (s goog) views and exciting the tech blogosphere with a non-story, what really is whether this is an issue for ordinary people in everyday use.

So, how many people are truly suffering from the death grip in normal, non-crazy, smother-grip everyday use? So far — we don’t know. We may never know. What we do know is that the iPhone 4 is the best-selling iPhone ever, and has the lowest return rates of any model of iPhone produced so far.

Being able to significantly attenuate the iPhone radio signal in a lab or a YouTube video is academically interesting; but unless signal attenuation is causing real-world problems for ordinary people whenever they use their iPhone, it’ll remain academically, but not generally, interesting.

And then there’s that other teeny-tiny little matter of Apple’s iPhone R&D. Apple uses state-of-the-art testing facilities to ensure that new designs or configurations don’t fundamentally compromise normal functionality. None of this is cheap, by the way. Apple has never revealed how much the iPhone has cost them in R&D, but it’s safe to assume many millions of dollars have been spent to-date. Seems like an awful waste of money if the iPhone is truly so poorly designed it can’t function under normal circumstances, right? That’s the kind of resource mis-management that could get a CEO sacked.

So — what’s more probable? That, despite all their top-flight engineers, antenna experts and exhaustive testing and quality assurance procedures, Apple still creates and sells a fatally flawed phone incapable of maintaining a signal in normal use or that this whole Antennagate issue is (and always has been) little more than tabloid nonsense and breathless blogo-gossip?

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