In fact, this idea of putting the antenna outside can be a masterstroke from Apple. Compare the past models – the antenna is inside and then most users put a case anyway, so the it gets buried deeper still….

I am here in Mumbai, yet to see the iPhone 4. Based on twitter comments and online reports about the antenna issue, I wonder if anyone has succeeded in making any phone call at all!

The fact of the matter is that this issue is turning out to be a classic example of how people approach problem solving. Here is a round-up of typical complaints:

1. Apple is plain stupid for designing an antenna which can be touched. We all know doing that causes a disturbance…

Surely, a company which sells many millions each year (even if they were all bought by fanboys), might have some engineers who have a better idea than the ‘we all know’ category.

Even if this is a flaw, it might be worth appreciating the fact that Apple was trying to be more sophisticated in making it better – as the whole world knows Apple likes to make things better in form and function. At times you can get ahead of yourself… We will have to wait to see how wide this problem actually is.

2. Just by holding it in a certain way, and the signal bars are dropping!

Sure, they might. For some phones I have used just tilting them makes it feel as if you are playing with mercury. The bars are a simplified approximation of a complex set of parameters, (that too fluctuating over time) which most of us ‘we all know’ types have little clue of.

Here is a recent case of my installing iOS4 on my iPodTouch 2G. Now my wifi bars are in a flux all the time! But guess what, my wifi experience has in fact improved.

I have a MacBook at home with internet sharing via AirPort (no wifi hub as I connect with a USB device). Before iOS4, my iPodTouch would work with this ad hoc wifi, provided it remained awake all the time. If I took it downstairs and woke it say after  30 minutes, it would not re-detect the wifi hotspot. Now it does, but the bars (arcs) fluctuate a lot more. It means nothing. I can connect and reconnect and it is all for the better. The connection does drops, perhaps like before, but if I swivel it, I can catch the signal again. I am happier for sure.

There might be some issue like that with the iPhone 4, just that the sensitivity side-effect in this case may be on the less happier side.

3. Ok, I can ignore the bars, but calls are dropping!

Sure they might, more for some, less for others. Perhaps more than the iPhone 3G- for some, less for others. This is a different device. It could well be that a 3G user has poorer result with this device in the same area. Likewise, there will be some who have a better experience as well, as the antenna’s new design of improving weak signals has indeed taken effect.

But now each time a call drops, we are sure to connect with the $200 we paid for a broken antenna, rather than redial and get moving. Fortunately, when my wifi drops I do not tear my head over re-installing iOS4.

4. So many complaints cannot be wrong!

Nobody knows the stats of how – all the others – are faring. What we see online are people actually reacting to dropped calls (fair enough, it did not happen to them earlier) but those who do connect better, may not find it necessary to tweet, as their experience is just fine.

Like you see reviews- often 8/10 may complain about a hotel, but  to conclude 80% are unhappy with a hotel is flawed indeed.  Most who liked a hotel may not comment online (back to hectic life after vacation), as there was nothing to complain.

Signal reception is a statistically complex issue, just a different device, can have different results for the same user/region, often for the worse. But we surely do not know wide this problem is.

4. It does not happen with other phones in the same situation!

Great, now the blogger turned scientist has opened a lab, to test the reception issues. Put some other phone besides an iPhone 4- and tabulate the differences in the ‘exact’ same situation.

But surely the bar readings are not like an Avogadro’s number experiment under same pressure/temperature situation. Two mobile devices are in fact likely to perform the same in different conditions! The iPhone 4 may do better than the other, in some other situation.

Please get results of all the possible combination of conditions – cell towers, nature of location, buildings, rooms within, etc… and phone angles near/away from each wall…  Then average the bars across the spectrum of typical use. I doubt if any blogger or testing agency has done that, or rather, can do so.

5. But the bumper is improving it, and Apple should have given it free!

It’s all about how much the bumper improves (due to reduced touch interference) and how much it attenuates it (canceling the signal to noise benefits of an open design at weak signal areas).

In fact, this idea of putting the antenna outside can be a masterstroke from Apple. Compare the past models – the antenna is inside and then most users put a case anyway, so the antenna gets buried deeper still. So by putting it outside, the typical usage (which is with a case), makes it only one layer deep. Moreover, when bare, it is designed to make reception possible where it was not, especially when placed on desk during downloads. So you can have the best of both worlds!

You can buy any bumper from elsewhere (choice!) so Apple need not give it away for free, unless the iPhone 4 simply does not work at all without the bumper.

6. Instead of admitting to a flawed hardware design, Apple wants to fix it via a software update! How can that be?

This is where we need to wait, even though reports prove that this is a hardware defect. Why? because hardware and software are not independent and more so in Apple’s case.

Here is a practical example of a headache I faced way back in 1994, when PowerMacs were introduced. I had a job of color correcting museum scans in New York. Our flatbed scanner which worked flawlessly with older 68K Macs suddenly had problems with the new PowerMac – after few scans it would hang during the file transfer. It gave us headaches restarting the Mac and scanner, changing memory settings every half hour…. There was a flaw in the SCSI bus (the sort of equivalent of firewire then) of the new PowerMacs was what the boss concluded.

The exact same scanner worked fine before, so it must be a flaw in the new Mac…

It turned out that the scanner software had a problem of timing of data transfer. It had assumed an arbitrary delay for data to arrive during the scan (instead of proper wait-check loop and read buffer when ready). With the new PowerMacs the bus was faster, and it exposed the flaw which always existed in the logic of the scanning software- of waiting arbitrarily rather than checking for data.

So it well could be that the bar indicator has a flawed logic since years, as Apple says. It got exposed by a new (and more sensitive) antenna. You’d say that Apple should have got it right in the first place, since it is not like the scanner company, who are better at optics not software. But this problem is also a lot fuzzier and statistical, than a peripheral to desktop data transfer issue.

It perhaps triggers code which assumes that fluctuations of some type (over many variables) must affect corresponding indicator bars, which in some cases are leading to a dropped call. But a better logic which accounts for signal variations due to touch, and the gain in signal to noise improvement due to the new design might well be on its way and prevent indicator changes or dropped calls- for the few or many who do face it.

I’ll buy an iPhone 4 and a case later this year, till then my iPodTouch and old Nokia for calls will work just fine.

14 July 2010