iPhone 4 to 3GS Dropped Call Comparison Meaningless Without Context

During Apple’s iPhone 4 “Antennagate” press conference, CEO Steve Jobs made what I think is a convincing case that Antennagate is mostly much ado about little. One factoid that he gave us — that the iPhone 4 drops just one more call per hundred than the iPhone 3GS — has little value without context, however, and that’s just how it was presented, without context.

So let’s examine it. One more than a hundred. It sounds small. It’s just one more, after all, right? For instance, let’s say the iPhone 4 dropped 57 calls out of a hundred, while the iPhone 3GS dropped 56 (there is no way the number is that high, but bear with me). That “just one more” would be a 1.78% increase, a tiny performance difference.

More realistically, is it  21 dropped calls on the iPhone 4 compared to 20 on the iPhone 3GS? That’s 5% more, which, as small as it is, is not a statistically small delta. Is it 11 compared to 10? That would be a 10% increase, which is considerable. Is it 5 compared to 4? That would represent a 25% increase, which would be staggering, if so.

It’s very understandable why AT&T won’t release the specific data in question. This is proprietary information that would be useful to competitors, and data that could be manipulated (see above) and subverted for use in advertising and marketing.

In other words, I am not accusing Apple of hiding anything here, but I am saying that it is little more than a platitude when presented without context. “Just one more than the other” sounds so benign, but “just one more” could be very little, a lot, a lot-er, or even “ZOMG! THAT’S JUST AWFUL!”

The only other thing Apple could have done would have been to express the delta in percentage terms, but even that level of specificity could be useful to the competition, and if it’s a high percentage (I’d personally say that anything over 15% is a high percentage), it’s information Apple wouldn’t want to have out there anyway.

The real point of my piece, though, is that we shouldn’t read too much into this particular factoid from Apple. Without the context all we really know is that the iPhone 4 drops more calls than the iPhone 3GS to some degree or another.

In comparison, the fact that 0.55% of iPhone 4 customers have called in with complaints is a tangible fact that strongly backs the argument that this issue effects few people. That 1/3 fewer iPhone 4s were returned to AT&T in the first few weeks of sales than the first few weeks of 3GS sales is meaningful number that further backs up Apple’s argument (Mr. Jobs told a reporter that Apple’s own customers returned even fewer in percentage terms than AT&T’s customers).

That Apple continues to sell the device, even with the supposed controversy in the blogosphere, in record numbers is proof (to me) that the vast majority of iPhone 4 owners have been happy with their experience.