iPhone 4 antenna mess jolts buyer satisfaction rating

Happiness factor down from iPhone 3GS, says ChangeWave survey

Despite a blizzard of bad press about the iPhone 4's antenna, more than nine out of 10 consumers who have the smartphone said they're happy with their purchase, a pollster said today.

But early buyers of the iPhone 4 are less likely to be satisfied with the smartphone than were early adopters of last summer's iPhone 3GS, acknowledged Paul Carton, research director at consumer spending research company ChangeWave.

According to a survey ChangeWave conducted in late July, just days after CEO Steve Jobs announced Apple would give free Bumper cases to solve reception problems, 93% of iPhone 4 owners said they were "very satisfied" or "somewhat satisfied" with the device.

That number is down from the 99% scored by the iPhone 3GS the month after its launch in 2009.

"Considering how much was written, I think it's quite an accomplishment that this satisfaction [rating] stayed up that high after all this," said Carton in a conference call with reporters today.

Carton attributed the drop in satisfaction ratings for the iPhone 4 to what he called a "firestorm" of negative press about the smartphone's reception. ChangeWave's survey put the "very satisfied" number for the new phone at 72%, with another 21% reporting they were "somewhat satisfied." The iPhone 3GS scored 82% and 17%, respectively, last summer.

"It would have been astonishing if the antenna issue did not have an impact," Carton said. "There was lots of media reaction and huge amounts of discussion about the issue."

Complaints about the iPhone 4's reception surfaced within hours of its June debut, as buyers complained that touching the external antenna -- embedded in a steel band that encircles the case -- often dropped calls or caused the signal strength indicator to plummet. Initially, Apple told consumers to hold their phones differently or buy a case, then claimed that flawed code in the operating system inaccurately reported signal strength.

Just days after Consumer Reports magazine said it could not recommend the smartphone because it dropped calls and lost signals, Jobs held a hastily-called news conference to defend the iPhone 4 and announce the Bumper case giveaway.

About one in five iPhone 4 owners were affected by the antenna problem, Carton said, citing responses to one of the survey questions. While 78% of the iPhone 4 owners said they hadn't experienced the antenna-touching reception issue, or that it was "not much" of a problem, 21% said it was "somewhat of a" or a "very big" problem.

But iPhone 4 buyers reported 17% fewer dropped calls than did owners of the iPhone 3GS: The former said they'd had experienced dropped calls 5.2% of time, compared to 6.3% of the time for iPhone 3GS users. "Despite all the issues, in actuality, iPhone 4 owners reported slightly fewer dropped calls than 3GS owners in June 2010," said Carton.

Those results are at odds with Steve Jobs' admission last month that the iPhone 4 dropped an additional one call per hundred calls placed compared to earlier iPhones.

Carton acknowledged that the iPhone 4 did not score as high in satisfaction as last year's iPhone 3GS, but said Apple's newest smartphone still ranked higher than rivals.

"Despite a bumpy release, the iPhone 4 is outperforming almost every other smartphone in terms of satisfaction," he said, pointing to earlier surveys that include competitors' phones. "It's not as high as what we've seen before from the iPhone ... but the good news for Apple is that the [antenna] issues seem to be clearing up."

Last year, a ChangeWave poll showed that the iPhone 3GS handily beat other smartphones in consumer satisfaction, and yielded numbers Carton at the time called "on a different planet."

"We should look at the iPhone 4 as a work in progress. If the antenna issue disappears, the iPhone 4 could end up at least equivalent in satisfaction to the 3GS," said Carton. "This shows that [Apple's] brand is resilient and can take the hits. And frankly, I don't see this having a long-term impact."

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