Apple’s Mistake

July 25th, 2010

On July 16th, Apple held a press conference to discuss the iPhone 4′s antenna. On the whole, Apple’s approach was good—they explained what the problem was and how they would resolve it for customers. Providing a free case for anyone experiencing signal attenuation is a sufficient gesture.

Nonetheless, Apple made two errors—one serious, and one slightly less so.

The slightly smaller mistake was made at the press conference itself. Apple not only explained what was causing signal attenuation on the iPhone 4, but did two things: they tried to argue the media was looking for a good story rather than reporting things factually (effectively positioning Apple as the victim) and that this problem isn’t unique to the iPhone 4, but is an industry-wide problem.

While it may be accurate that the media dramatized the story, and it is somewhat unfair that Apple garnered so much criticism over it when most phones exhibit similar issues, they did so because Apple is different than RIM, HTC and Motorola. Consumers expect those companies to put out products with issues, because that’s how most companies work. They put out products with problems, but consumers either don’t notice them or ignore them. But because Apple is so good at what they do, and we buy Apple products not just because they are functional but because Apple puts so much effort into their design. Apple has become a symbol of exceptionality, of making something whose quality and detail is beyond what we expect. Any issues become a lot more glaring in that case.

Apple made a mistake in arguing “hey, everyone else has this problem, too” because they aren’t everyone else, and they shouldn’t want to be. They should accept their unique position, acknowledge there is a real issue (whether it was a conscious trade-off they made or not) and move on. “They did it, too” is never a valid excuse when your entire advantage is your uniqueness.

The second, and more damaging, mistake Apple made was early on. When the iPhone 4 was released and the signal attenuation story was just breaking, Apple put out a response basically saying most phones experience this problem and that users should just avoid holding the bottom-left corner.

Well, first, no, not all phones experience this problem. While all phones do suffer signal degradation if your hand covers the antenna, the iPhone 4′s signal degradation is much worse than comparable phones. Anandtech compared the iPhone 4′s signal degradation to the iPhone 3GS and HTC Nexus One, and the iPhone 4′s signal was reduced much more significantly than the other two. This doesn’t result from some forced, awkward way of holding the phone, either—it results from holding the iPhone 4 so the bottom-left seam touches your hand, and in use it results in more dropped calls. When held like this (the natural way I hold my iPhone), my iPhone 4 will garble or drop calls where my iPhone 3G had no problem holding a connection.

Worse, though, Apple didn’t get out ahead of the problem. By refusing to acknowledge there was a problem at all, Apple allowed this to develop into a full-blown controversy. We’ve all experienced it—over the past few weeks, people who see me using my iPhone 4 don’t ask me how great the screen is but whether I have the antenna issue. Apple chose to allow this to develop by not acknowledging the issue immediately.

That’s the worst mistake a company can make when they have a potential disaster and the impact has been clear. The iPhone 4 has still been a terrific success, but the antenna issue is a black mark on what is Apple’s most successful product launch ever. Sometimes, even Apple needs to show a little humility.