By Rob Pegoraro
Wednesday, July 14, 2010; A15
Apple has a reception problem.
No, not the one some users of its new iPhone 4 have complained about, in which holding the phone with your hand over a gap between its two antennas on its lower left side weakens the phone's grasp of AT&T's signal.
That's an engineering problem that should be fixable, just as Apple has surmounted earlier technical difficulties, including the botched launch of its MobileMe online service.
But Apple's apparent inability to take customer complaints seriously and respectfully will take more than a Version 1.1 software update or a corrected circuit-board design to fix.
This is an old story with Apple. Although its tech-support representatives, whether on the phone or in the Genius Bars at its stores, can provide terrific one-on-one help, the Cupertino, Calif., company resists getting into public conversations about its business.
Almost alone among tech companies -- or publicly owned companies in general -- it maintains no blog, doesn't interact with customers on Twitter and even issues far fewer press releases than many firms of its size.
Lately, Apple's most visible communications have been the curt replies of chief executive Steve Jobs to e-mails from random customers (and the occasional journalist).
But the strange story of iPhone 4 reception -- it's more of a melodrama by now -- has put Apple's communication breakdown under a harsh spotlight.
First, the company said nothing when some buyers of the new $199-and-up iPhone 4 -- in many aspects a beautiful piece of work -- complained that their new gadget dropped calls when they held it the wrong way.
Then Apple issued a statement suggesting that all phones had this kind of problem and that iPhone 4 users should, as Jobs put it in a widely quoted e-mail, "Just avoid holding it that way."
This dismissive response did not amuse some iPhone 4 owners.
A week later, the company posted a "Letter from Apple Regarding iPhone 4" that chalked the problem up to "totally wrong" software that made mediocre AT&T reception look like a strong signal -- neatly deflecting blame to AT&T, the only carrier to provide service for the iPhone in the United States.
This, too, did not match the experience of affected iPhone users who had seen calls drop. (Some have found that, when not held in the "grip of death," the iPhone offers better reception than its predecessors.)
One of these individuals works at Consumer Reports. The magazine ran its own laboratory testing and concluded that Apple's software theory didn't hold up. In a post on Monday the Yonkers, N.Y.-based magazine announced that it was withholding its coveted "Recommended" approval from the model until Apple provided a free fix for the problem.
Cranky iPhone 4 users -- it's remarkable how much fury this issue has generated, compared with the AT&T network issues that have afflicted every iPhone model to date -- took to Apple's tech-support forums to complain.
Apple's forum rules prohibit discussions not tied to identifying or solving technical problems, and the company has a history of enforcing these rules.
But the spectacle of Apple repeatedly deleting forum threads about CR's thumbs-down only further enraged iPhone 4 users who just want their new phone to work as a phone.
You may have to go back to Intel's initial, dismissive replies to complaints about a mathematical error in its Pentium processors to find such a tone-deaf response in the tech business.
The amazing thing is that this has gone on with a company as image-conscious as Apple. It built its own line of stores, many in the world's most expensive shopping districts, when it didn't like how other retailers presented its wares. It proudly notes that the underside of its MacBook laptop is marred by a mere eight screws. It put a display on the new iPhone with more resolution than the human eye can spot from a foot away.
So why is it acting like it's afraid to hear its customers out?
That's yet another query that Apple would apparently prefer not to answer.
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