Apple Engineer Warned of iPhone 4 Antenna Problems: Report

The soap opera surrounding Apple's iPhone 4 took another turn with a Bloomberg report that said an Apple engineer warned the company several months in advance that the new design for the phone would be problematic.

Ruben Caballero, a senior engineer and antenna expert at Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL), told management last year that the stainless steel band that wraps the perimeter of the phone -- and acts as its antenna -- could actually hurt reception, according to an unidentified source who spoke to Bloomberg.

The news service also quoted an unnamed source at a "carrier partner" who also raised concerns about the antenna before the phone was launched on June 24 release.

The iPhone 4 launched in the U.S., England, Japan, France and Germany, so it’s unclear who that carrier partner might have been: AT&T, Vodafone Group, France Telecom, Deutsche Telekom or Softbank. AT&T, the exclusive carrier in the U.S., did not return a request for comment.

Prior to the launch of the iPhone 4, Apple opted to squeeze the device’s antenna inside the phone’s case. But with the iPhone 4 already so packed, Apple opted for using an external antenna, making what it thought was both practical and stylish design decision.

But part of the problem with that choice, according to reports, is that the metal band surrounding the phone could not be a solid, single piece of metal: It would have to be separated in sections to create individual antennas that handle the different radio frequencies the iPhone uses, like GSM, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Caballero, the antenna expert, allegedly expressed concern in early planning meetings that if there was anything covering the gaps in between the splits in the phone, it might lead to dropped calls.

Sure enough, the problem with signal loss -- now widely known as the "death grip" -- is said to manifest itself when the phone is held in the left hand and the palm covers a seam in the lower-left part of the phone.

Apple declined to comment to Bloomberg, or to make Caballero available for an interview. It has not responded to requests for comment by InternetNews.com.

If the report is accurate, Caballero's warning confirms what Rob Enderle, principal analyst with The Enderle Group, told InternetNews.com about Apple: function follows form. "Apple leads with design. It's the nature of how they approach a problem. Design tends to win out over engineer, and when they have a problem, it's often because design trumped what should have been a better engineering decision," he said.

It's bitten Apple before. The first generation of iPods had non-removable batteries, and back in 2001, battery technology was not as advanced as it is today, so the batteries wore out quickly. Apple charged $200 to replace them, which was almost as much as the iPod. The company was sued over this and settled (settlement available here in PDF format).

Government attention

Complaints about the “death grip” causing lost signal strength and dropped calls began emerging just as the new iPhone 4 shipped. The stories were largely anecdotal, but took on new urgency when Consumer Reports stepped in with a review saying the problem was with the antenna and the respected consumer publication said it could not endorse or recommend the iPhone because of this.

Since then, heat has been building on Apple. Public relations experts have said the company should recall the phone, or at the very least give out a free "bumper" that covers the phone's perimeter and protects against signal loss.

In its latest blog posting, Consumer Reports found that the bumper did alleviate the problem, but added "these options all put the onus on consumers to solve or pay for a fix. We're still calling on Apple to provide an acceptable free solution to the iPhone 4's signal-loss problem."

CR isn't the only advocate making a public call on Apple. The senior senator from New York, Democrat Charles Schumer, sent an open letter to Apple calling for action and citing the CR review.

“I believe it is incumbent upon Apple to address this flaw in a transparent manner,” Schumer wrote.

To Enderle, who warned that this controversy was ripe for a politician to use for grandstanding in this election year, said Apple better not take it lightly.

"It looks like if Apple wants to play hardball, he's quite ready to turn it around and use it against them," he said. “You get senators upset and they're more than willing to go to war with you because it's good publicity for them. Look what they did to Toyota.”

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


iPhone, Apple, recall, signal, iPhone 4 antenna