Apple's iPhone 4 fiasco: There's no good way out

Apple has simply dug itself in too deep to emerge from this unscathed

Pardon the produce-heavy language, but Apple is in one serious pickle.

The company's iPhone 4 antenna debacle has quickly spiraled into an all-out PR disaster. After nearly three solid weeks of customer complaints -- all of which were pooh-poohed by Apple -- Consumer Reports dropped a bomb on Monday when it reported its hardware tests had "confirmed" a problem with the iPhone 4's reception. Apple's stock has already fallen following the news.

"When your finger or hand touches a spot on the phone's lower left side -- an easy thing, especially for lefties -- the signal can significantly degrade enough to cause you to lose your connection altogether," Consumer Reports says. "Due to this problem, we can't recommend the iPhone 4."

Apple, of course, is no stranger to conflict and controversy -- hell, the company's practically as famous for its self-righteous ways as it is for its products -- but with the iPhone reception issue, Steve Jobs' team has dug itself into a pretty deep hole. And the prospect of escaping with grace grows more difficult by the day.

Apple's iPhone 4 Antenna Issue: A Problem of Positioning

The problem isn't so much the iPhone 4 antenna issue itself; it's how Apple has responded to it. From the get-go, Apple's maintained that the issue isn't with how it designed the phone, but rather with how everyone else is using it.

Take a deep breath.

First, we have Jobs' infamously terse e-mail responses to customers inquiring about iPhone 4 reception problems. One user described the so-called "grip of death" and asked what could be done; Jobs dismissively replied: "Just avoid holding it in that way." That gem of a note was followed by another classically-Jobsian response: "There is no reception issue."

But it doesn't end there. Apple soon released its own official response to the matter, further downplaying the idea of any defect.

"Gripping any phone will result in some attenuation of its antenna performance, with certain places being worse than others depending on the placement of the antennas. This is a fact of life for every wireless phone," Apple's statement said.

("Except that the antenna is not located in a place where people put their fingers on any other phone," it probably should have added.)

Next, the Cupertino company came out with an open letter declaring that a problem with the way the iPhone measured signal strength was actually to blame.

"Upon investigation, we were stunned to find that the formula we use to calculate how many bars of signal strength to display is totally wrong," the letter said. "Our formula, in many instances, mistakenly displays 2 more bars than it should for a given signal strength."

(Consumer Reports says its findings "call [that claim] into question.")

Finally, in the most sigh-inspiring move of all, Apple appears to have started erasing threads that mention the Consumer Reports study from its official support forums. Go ahead and sigh. I'll wait.

Apple's iPhone 4 Options

Back with me? All right -- so, given that messy foundation, where does Apple go from here? There are really two basic options:

1. Acknowledge that there's a problem with the iPhone 4's antenna. By doing this, the company effectively confesses that either it (a) was previously lying and trying to downplay the issue or (b) got it wrong and doesn't have a clear understanding of its own products. It's sure hard to imagine a guy like Steve Jobs taking either of those stances.

2. Continue to flagrantly ignore the issue and pretend, in one way or another, that the problem doesn't exist. This has been Apple's approach thus far. Now, however, given the lab-driven report by Consumer Reports -- an independent, nonprofit, highly regarded organization -- Apple is going to look pretty ridiculous if it continues maintaining this position.

It's a lose-lose scenario; Apple has simply dug itself in too deep to emerge from this unscathed. Even a fix of some sort -- be it a full recall or a distribution of free bumper-style cases that'd protect the antennas from direct skin contact -- can't get Apple off scot-free, given everything that's transpired.

Now, I'm fully aware that the most devoted portion of Apple's fan base -- "Apple fanboys," as they're known -- are fully supportive of Apple's actions. And that's to be expected. But outside of that wildly allegiant group, people are starting to ask questions.

Unfortunately for Apple, I'm not sure there are any good answers.

JR Raphael is a PCWorld contributing editor and the creator of the Steve Jobs E-Mail Generator. You can find him on Facebook: facebook.com/The.JR.Raphael

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JR Raphael

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