Apple Owns Up to iPhone 4 Antenna Woes

With questions and concerns about the iPhone 4's antenna mounting just a week after the device's blockbuster launch, Apple is admitting that it only recently determined that the iPhone's software for determining signal strength has been defective -- and that it's been on the fritz for years.

In an unsigned, open letter to iPhone users, Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) said it was "stunned to find that the formula we use to calculate how many bars of signal strength to display is totally wrong." It also promised a software fix for the antenna display problem in coming weeks.

Apple further acknowledged that its antenna displays have been functioning incorrectly since the first iPhone shipped in 2007.

Apple said its formula for displaying bars to show signal strength had been incorrect, often showing more bars than should have been displayed, given the actual signal strength. For instance, it would show four bars when it should only show two.

"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," Apple wrote. "Their big drop in bars is because their high bars were never real in the first place."

To fix this, Apple said it's adopting a new formula that it recently adopted from AT&T. The revised approach will more accurately calculate how many bars to display for a given signal strength, Apple said. It will also change how bars are displayed so they are easier to see.

The change will be applied to the iPhone 3, 3GS and 4. The original iPhone is out of luck and off warranty

Apple spokespeople did not return request for additional comment by press time.

Apple's new iPhone 4 sold 1.7 million units in the first three days alone, proving an immediate hit. But its blockbuster sales also served to quickly bring the antenna problems to the forefront.

The reception issue had first been reported among customers who had the phone shipped directly to their home. Those users, who got the phone a day or two before the in-store launch day, noticed that when they held their phone a certain way, the number of signal strength bars would drop. Some said the phone would drop calls; others said it did not.

Apple got a bit of a boost when tech site AnandTech published an in-depth look at the iPhone 4 antenna and came to the conclusion that yes, there is signal loss while holding the phone, but it's not as bad as it had been with the iPhone 3GS and that it should not deter anyone from buying the phone.

AnandTech found the signal is much stronger on the new iPhone 4 over past-generation iPhones, regardless of the way it's held.

Avi Greengart, research director for mobile and consumer devices with Current Analysis, agreed with the assessment. "I've been able to use the iPhone 4 in midtown Manhattan where I could never use a 3GS before," he told InternetNews.com.

Still, he said he believes Apple should just give customers a protective cover for the phone -- which could help reduce antenna issues -- and end the headache.

"They can argue reception has improved, and I'll grant them that," he said. "But by putting the antenna on the outside, you risk skin contact and I think to mitigate that they ought to offer a free case, just as RIM includes a belt case with all BlackBerrys and HTC includes silicone cases with its products. So it wouldn't be setting a precedent."

"It really is affecting Apple's reputation and brand at this point," he added. "It's time for Apple to get this issue out of the news cycle. Apple has to be tired with people saying there are problems with using an iPhone for phone calls."

Legal fallout for Apple

In the course of two days, a handful of lawsuits have been filed against Apple and AT&T, all citing the reception and antenna issue.

One of the cases, filed by two plaintiffs in Maryland, alleges general negligence, defect in design, manufacture, and assembly, breach of express warranty, breach of implied warranty for merchantability, and a number of other charges -- all stemming from the antenna issue.

"Almost immediately after the purchase of their iPhone 4 devices, both [the plaintiffs] began to experience significantly reduced reception and performance when handling the phones as demonstrated in Apple's advertisements or as a reasonable person would handle a mobile telephone while making phone calls, browsing the Internet, sending text messages, or utilizing other services provided by the iPhone 4," the suit reads.

It's unclear what steps Apple is taking beyond issuing a fix for the antenna problems. But Engadget readers pointed out three new job openings at Apple, all for "antenna engineers."

Analyst Gerry Purdy with Mobile Trax thinks a mountain is being made out of a molehill with the antenna issue. "I think the PR issue is minor to the science problem. I would say many people will opt for going to get a case and not worry about [the antenna]," he told InternetNews.com.

But he does think Apple could have done a better job with the antenna reception in the first place. "It certainly questions Apple's prelaunch quality assurance processes," he said. "A company with that much success not having known about the problem in advance is surprising. Now, if they knew about it and shrugged their shoulders, then that's shortsighted."

Andy Patrizio is a senior editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.


iPhone, Apple, iPhone 4, AT&T, antenna