Apple's fix for iPhone 4 antenna angst: free cases or a full refund

July 16 (Bloomberg) -- Michael Gartenberg, partner at research firm Altimeter Group LLC, discusses a design flaw in the antenna of Apple Inc.'s iPhone 4. Apple Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs apologized to users affected by the so-called Antennagate, saying Apple is "working our butts off" to correct it. He offered customers a case to fix the flaw. He speaks with Pimm Fox on Bloomberg Television's "Taking Stock." (Source: Bloomberg)
By Rob Pegoraro
Saturday, July 17, 2010

Apple still doesn't think there's anything really wrong with its new iPhone 4 and says it has the data to back that claim. But just in case, it will offer free cases to customers worried about the device's reception and a full 30-day refund on the phone to those who can't live with it.

Chief executive Steve Jobs announced those responses in a half-hour news conference at its Cupertino, Calif., campus Friday. The hastily scheduled event followed weeks of increasingly uncomplimentary commentary and coverage about the possibility of the iPhone 4 losing AT&T's wireless signal when held with a palm or a finger over a gap between its two external antennas.

Jobs used much of the news conference -- which led off a with the playing of an "iPhone Antenna Song," lately popular on YouTube, mocking media coverage -- to suggest those fears were overwrought. As proof, he cited Apple's research, the iPhone 4's retail sales figures and tech-support data from Apple and AT&T.

(Tech Crunch: Why I'm Craigslisting my iPads)

Specifically, he said that with 3 million devices sold, AT&T was reporting a return rate of 1.7 percent for the iPhone 4, compared with 6 percent for the iPhone 3GS. Among tech-support calls to Apple about the iPhone 4, only 0.55 percent involved complaints about reception.

And AT&T data show that iPhone 4 users experience only one more dropped call in 100 attempts than other iPhone users. But Jobs didn't share absolute numbers, which means the difference could still be statistically significant.

Further, Jobs said, other phones have the same reception issue when held the wrong way, including earlier iPhones and competitors such as the BlackBerry Bold 9700, HTC's Android-powered Droid Eris and Samsung's Windows Mobile Omnia II. Some users of those other phones are already questioning Apple's claims.

Jobs also repeated an earlier Apple explanation that the iPhone's original software overstates AT&T's signal in some cases, making the slight drop in reception caused by holding the phone the wrong way look worse. A software update released Thursday should fix that and, on an iPhone 4 loaned by Apple, caused AT&T's signal to appear one or two bars worse in some places.

Although Apple doesn't think there's a major issue here -- it has ruled out recalling the iPhone 4 -- Jobs said the company wants to make its customers happy. So it's taking two extra steps.

First, buyers can order a free case of their choice -- a fix for the reception issue that everybody seems to agree works -- through Apple's Web site in a week or so. Customers who already bought Apple's $29 "bumper" case can get a refund.

Second, Jobs said any dissatisfied buyer can get a full refund for an undamaged iPhone 4 up to 30 days after its purchase. But Apple already has a 30-day return policy for iPhones, and the company said two weeks ago that it would waive the $20 to $30 restocking fee it usually charges.

Jobs added that Apple is still working to correct the iPhone 4's proximity sensor, which some users have complained doesn't correctly shut off the screen's touch sensitivity when they hold the phone to their faces.

"We love our users," Jobs said. "We work our asses off for them."

Jobs does not share those warm feelings about the media, to judge from some of his remarks. He criticized obsessive coverage of "antennagate" and described a Bloomberg BusinessWeek story alleging that he ignored engineers' warnings of reception problems as "a crock."

Setting aside his critiques of particular stories, Jobs has a point. The amount of attention paid to this issue -- including a grandstanding statement released by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) demanding that Apple fix the issue for free -- has gotten ridiculous. As a hardware story, this saga doesn't deserve all the pixels and pages that have been devoted to it. If you really expected perfection from the iPhone 4, you've spent too much time watching Apple's ads and not enough time using its products.

The real problem remains the sluggish and secretive way Apple deals with queries and criticism from its customers and the public in general. Jobs's appearance Friday might address the concerns of individual iPhone users, but it doesn't suggest the company is working on a bug-fix release for that larger issue.

Living with technology, or trying to?

© 2010 The Washington Post Company