Apple’s iPhone 4 Press Conference Disappoints

On Friday, Apple CEO Steve Jobs went into enormous technical detail to justify their position. The problem is, those technical details will be lost on the non-technical press, and the free case from Apple isn’t a great solution.

I am accustomed to Apple exceeding my expectations. Today, the company did not.

In a curious sequence, Mr. Jobs admitted that a bumper solves the reception problem, admittedly shared by many smartphones, but then diverted everyone to a case. The problem is that the case must be purchased online, and people are fussy about the size, weight, texture, sturdiness, color and feel of their cases. I believe that this solution is not going to make all his iPhone 4 customers insanely happy.

Mr. Jobs went into considerable technical detail, but the one technical detail left unmentioned was why, if a bumper works so well, why wouldn’t a non-conductive coating? Yesterday, I went into some detail about why this would be the preferable solution, but it was never mentioned. If Apple couldn’t find a suitable coating that could be applied properly, it would have been nice to hear about that.

To reiterate, I suspect that Apple would love to solve this reception issue down the road. After all, with a $100M investment in an antenna facility and 18 Ph.Ds, one might suspect that, if any company could, Apple will find a better solution. If that’s rolled into later production, then early iPhone 4 customers will feel that their iPhone is damaged goods. No different than and no better than the current competition.

In terms of the technical details presented by Mr. Jobs, I fear that it will all be lost on the non-technical press and TV news. They have no hope of conveying all that information in a digestible way to readers and viewers. How they’ll absorb all that and present it presents further dangers for Apple. In fact, I’ll suggest a general rule: don’t try to engineer your way out of a PR disaster.

Apple has only hit a double. To have really hit one out of the park, Apple needed to simplify the presentation. Sure, only a small percentage, 0.55 percent, of AppleCare calls complained about reception. But AT&Ts own statistics showed that the iPhone 4 suffers more dropped calls than the 3GS. So, in my opinion, it would have been smarter for Mr. Jobs to make a grand gesture even if very, very expensive, that could capture people’s imagination. Simple, enthusiastic sound bytes are better than the frustration Mr. Jobs showed.

The solution presented by Apple seemed hurried. Apple was backed into a corner. Not enough bumpers would be forthcoming. No coating would, apparently solve the problem. Possibly no engineering solution, internal or external to the iPhone4, at all would be possible. So if Mr. Jobs really were looking out for his customers, he would have moved heaven and earth to provide the one universally accepted solution, a bumper, even if customers had to wait beyond the current quarter. Instead, the proposed solution for a case seemed rushed and is unlikely to make all the current case manufacturers happy — let alone the customers.

Mr. Jobs could have been more dramatic as he dispensed with defensive technical minutiae. He might have said that Apple is determined to solve the problem and, if they do, Apple will make it right with current customers. Instead, he said, essentially that it’s not a problem worth solving. Get over it. That’s the message that will end up making headlines.

The net result of this is that Apple has learned a lot about being a consumer electronics giant. Their public relations people can’t stonewall. The company can’t both claim that their product is superior to all others, a perfect object that’s droolworthy, and then later admit that it has the same reception problems as all other smartphones. Customers will also need to calm down a bit and learn not to stand in line for hours and hours for the iPhone 5.

This whole affair should be a coming out party for Apple, a seasoning for the hugely successful, wealthy and powerful company. I am left wondering whether this experience will change the way Apple operates or whether, now that the company believes that it’s all behind them, it’s back to business as usual.