Evaluating Apple’s iPhone 4 Open Letter

Apple has provided what it claims is the correct technical answer to alleged reception problems with the iPhone 4. We have to believe that Apple wouldn’t vastly underestimate the technical resources and abilities of the customer base to evaluate that proposed fix.

As I mentioned yesterday, Apple has been about the business of trying to understand, from a sound engineering standpoint, the issues related to the iPhone 4 antenna system, how it operates, and the effects of holding the phone in certain ways, with and without pressure. On Friday, Apple announced that it had discovered the problem and “will issue a free software update within a few weeks…”

We have to take Apple at face value on this because Apple’s reputation as well as the iPhone 4’s reputation are at stake. Plaintiffs in class action lawsuits related to the matter could well force Apple to prove in court that their solution is valid. That could come after another even more scrutinized period of antenna and performance testing by the community, volunteer scientists, independent labs, and technically savvy customers.

So far, the testing has revolved around the display of the number of bars in the iPhone 4 vs. the way in which the phone is held or squeezed. That could very well be an acoustic-electrical interaction with the antenna and its subsystem that has nothing to do with the actual ability of the phone to make calls and could explain why some people just don’t notice a problem. There could be other factors.

I’m not an antenna engineer, just a former physicist, and I can think of simple simple tests to evaluate Apple’s claim.

1. Lay the iPhone 4 on a table. Attach a headset. Make a call. Estimate the call quality. Then pick up the phone, squeezing it, to see how the signal bars change. But also determine if the call is dropped or if the call quality changes. I haven’t heard about any testing like that.

2. Test with a 3G Microcell. By any standard of smartphone design, the iPhone 4 should show five bars when only a meter away from a 3G Microcell. If, after the Apple software fix, the bars drop from five to three, then questions are raised.

These are just informal tests that pale compared to what, I suspect, Apple iPhone engineers have been through in the past few weeks, but it does demonstrate that imaginative and technical people will, in due course, test Apple’s claim that the company has found the problem. Apple has a lot at stake here, and we can only surmise that they’ve arrived at a correct technical understanding of the problem.

Here will be the metric. If, after the software fix, (and even before) the iPhone 4, in actual call performance, is substantially the same as any other modern smartphone, in call performance and dropped calls, independent of the bars displayed, then Apple has nothing to worry about. The weight of the evidence, from what I’ve read so far, is that that’s the case. However, if it can be scientifically demonstrated that the iPhone’s antenna design remains defective and is at a disadvantage compared to competing products, then Apple’s troubles will hardly be over.

A lesson here is that these devices are complex and designed by experts, some Ph.Ds, in physics, solid state electronics, radio and antenna technology, and so on. Misunderstandings can become pervasive, fanned by the press, when not enough technical expertise is brought to bear. Apple, unlike the press, has the resources to tackle such problems, and while its assertions will be severely tested, we can probably rest assured that the whole matter will blow over now.