iPhone 4 PR [Updated]

Yesterday I picked up my iPhone 4 from the AT&T store. The line was about 20 people deep when I arrived. As we stood there, shoppers passed by and watched us wait. Many of them had something to say. None of it was good.

“They’re returning their iPhones,” one woman said. “They get no reception.”

“When you hold it,” said another, “it breaks.”

“I’m going to keep my Blackberry since the iPhones don’t work.”

“Apple forces you to buy an expensive case. I bet that’s what they’re waiting for.”

If these sentiments represent public opinion, [1. Eavesdropping on random shoppers in a rural mall — specifically, only those motivated enough to disparage Apple —  is hardly scientific evidence, so keep that in mind.] Apple has a real PR problem on its hands. Geeks like you and me are more informed, but we’re the minority of consumers.

_______

Update: Response from Mr. D.

Apple to drop 10% restocking fee on iPhone 4 returns [Updated]

Computerworld reports that Apple has dropped the 10% restocking fee on iPhone 4 returns in an attempt to mollify customers frustrated by the signal issue.

If Apple is right, and the problem is that the iPhone is reporting a stronger signal than it actually has, the forthcoming patch won’t “fix” the issue, but more accurately let users know when their signal is critically low. Expect additional moaning and complaining.

Update: I’ve been asked by email to explain “…moaning and complaining.” The moaning and complaining will be justified; I apologize if that came off as snarky. As it is now, the iPhone is incapable of reliably performing its main function for many users. What’s unknown is exactly why.

Those in areas with a strong signal will be the least affected, as a drop from 5 bars to 3 is tolerable. However, dropping from 3 to 0 isn’t. So where’s the problem? Is AT&T’s network spotty in too many locations, or is the iPhone’s antenna especially poor at maintaining a strong connection?

More on this later today.

Apple explains iPhone 4 antenna issue

Apple issued a press release today explaining the reception trouble that many users have experienced. In short, the iPhone is erroneously reporting signal strength:

“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. Our formula, in many instances, mistakenly displays 2 more bars than it should for a given signal strength. For example, we sometimes display 4 bars when we should be displaying as few as 2 bars. Users observing a drop of several bars when they grip their iPhone in a certain way are most likely in an area with very weak signal strength, but they don’t know it because we are erroneously displaying 4 or 5 bars. Their big drop in bars is because their high bars were never real in the first place.”

In other words, when users saw their iPhone’s signal drop from 5 bars to 2, they were in fact dropping from 2 bars to zero. Apple’s only crime here was unknowingly exaggerating the strength of AT&T’s signal.

Apple will release a software fix “…within a few weeks” for the iPhone 4, 3Gs and 3G (Apple determined that issue has always existed on the iPhone) that utilizes AT&T’s modern formula for representing signal strength with those infamous bars.

This means that the worst case scenario — a hardware flaw — has been avoided. It also means that Jobs was right when he said, “There is no reception issue.” The reception is fine. The graphic representation of that reception has been wrong.

Finally, users like David Pogue who couldn’t reproduce the drop  (the majority of users, actually) are most likely in areas with strong coverage, where a drop from 5 bars to 4 or 3 isn’t significant. In fact, NYC (where David lives) recently received a major upgrade from AT&T. Good on Apple for the research and timely reply. If proven effective this fix should put an end to the lawsuits. In other words…

Blame AT&T.

Hold the phone [Updated]

Just hours after the iPhone 4 was delivered last week, some customers noticed an apparent data connection issue. Specifically, if one touches the lower left-hand corner of the phone with bare skin, the 3G connection immediately dies, and stays dead for as long as contact is maintained. Release the corner and the connection is re-established just as quickly. Cameron Hunt has posted a clear demonstration of the issue:

He isn’t the only one. Fraser Speirs posted a video of his iPhone demonstrating the problem, and Shawn Blanc charted his iPhone’s network performance while resting on his desk vs. while held in his left hand with clear results.

Meanwhile, others can’t replicate the drop at all. For example, David Pogue writes:

“I have never seen it on the iPhone unit I have been reviewing. I cannot even reproduce it, no matter how hard I try. I’m sitting here right now. I’m wrapping my hand every which way — I’m even holding it with two fists, completely concealing the silver band around the edges — and my four-bar signal strength doesn’t waver.”

What’s going on? To find an answer, let’s look at the band.

I’m with the band

When Gizmodo published photos of the early prototype, readers were struck by the metal band that edged the phone. With obvious seams and convex buttons, it veered from Apple’s aesthetic. Some suggested that the band was typical of unfinished, prototype hardware, and wouldn’t be a part of the final product. They were wrong. So what is it?

It’s a band of stainless steel, machined from Apple’s own alloy. Aside from holding the iPhone together, it integrates the iPhone’s UMTS, GSM, GPS, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth antennas. iFixit called it “…a work of genius.” Clearly, using the iPhone’s entire perimeter as the antenna was meant to address the chief complaints from earlier models: Dropped calls and spotty connectivity. Here’s how they’re arranged:

The issue arises when some users touch the seam between the right-hand side (UMTS/GSM) and the left-hand side (Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and GPS). How? According to WIRED, Danish blog ComON found one possible explanation by interviewing Professor Gert Frølund Pedersen of the Department of Electronic Systems at Aalborg University. Professor Pedersen:

“Human tissues will in any case have an inhibitory effect on the antenna. Touch means that a larger portion of the antenna energy turns into heat and lost. This makes the antenna less efficient to send and receive radio signals.”

Additionally, Spencer Webb of AntennaSys (Spencer has designed quad-band GSM antennas for the AT&T network) makes the issue quite clear:

“The iPhone 4 has two symmetrical slots in the stainless frame.  If you short these slots, or cover them with your hand, the antenna performance will suffer.  There is no way around this, it’s a design compromise that is forced by the requirements of the FCC, AT&T, Apple’s marketing department and Apple’s industrial designers, to name a few.”

Finally, Jobs himself confirmed the inevitability of human skin affecting an antenna’s performance in an email to a customer last week. Jobs wrote:

“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.”

Location, location, location

Let’s look at that “placement of the antenna” that Steve mentions. The iPhone 4’s antenna reaches around the bottom. If touching an antenna can cause trouble, as Spencer Webb and Professor Pedersen attest, why would manufacturers move it from the top, where my hand is not, to the bottom, where my hand is? Why not keep it on the top and avoid the issue all together? That’s a question for the FCC.

Not so long ago, the FCC defined the amount of energy that the human body may absorb from a handheld device. This limit is called the Specific Absorbtion Rate, or SAR. Mobile devices with top-mounted antennas were blasting more energy into human heads than SAR allowed. As a result, we’ve got bottom-mounted antennas in all of today’s mobile phones.

In short, we’re stuck with bottom-mounted antennas. Apple placed it on the rear of the original iPhone. By placing it on the side of the iPhone 4, Apple increased the likelihood that a user would disrupt its performance with a grasp.

Hot hands

As I said, not all users are experiencing this issue. So what’s keeping the unlucky ones down? The trouble seems to crop up most often:

  • With lefties. Of course, a left-handed user will press more skin against the left-hand side of the phone than a right-handed user would.
  • With sweat. Several customers have reported that damp/sweaty hands worsen the issue.
  • With naked phones. If you can, apply a case. [2. Believe me, I get the principle of the thing. You shouldn’t have to buy a case to get your phone to work.]

You’re doing it wrong

Amid a torrent of complaints, Apple has made statements on the issue. In an email to a customer, Steve Jobs made a simple suggestion:

“If you ever experience this on your iPhone 4, avoid gripping it in the lower left corner in a way that covers both sides of the black strip in the metal band, or simply use one of many available cases.”

If you dislike being told that you’re holding your phone the wrong way, take heart in this other email Jobs reportedly issued to a customer:

“There is no reception issue. Stay tuned.”

Sure sounds confident, doesn’t he? Perhaps a fix is in the works. Which brings us to the conclusion.

What does this all mean?

That depends on the answer to a crucial question: Is it a software issue or a hardware issue?

If it’s a software issue, as Steve’s terse email implies, then it’s really no big deal. Apple will release a free patch that will restore normal functionality for all users. A week later, they won’t remember this even happened.

If it’s a hardware issue, as Webb and Professor Pedersen suggest, well…that’s a disaster. A few things will happen.

  • Anti-Apple blogs (Gizmodo especially [3. Gizmodo has had a palpable chip on its shoulder since the iPhone prototype fiasco. Their reporting of the AT&T email leak — which they were intent on blaming on Apple — was downright gleeful]) will have a field day. Haters will come out of the woodwork in full Hate Mode with Kung-Fu Grip.
  • Users will demand restitution/replacements. I don’t think Apple has ever issued a recall.
  • The iPhone will suffer a huge PR failure.
  • Future sales will stall. I haven’t bought one and until the above question is answered, I won’t.

I hope this issue can be fixed with software. Perhaps one area of the antenna can be told to take over if it notices that another area is compromised. Here’s hoping this gets resolved this week. For now, it’s a real problem.

Update: Even Nokia says don’t hold it by the bottom.

iPhone 4 release roundup

The iPhone 4 was finally released today, capping off one of the strangest launches in Apple’s history. First, Gizmodo got a nearly-complete prototype and paraded it before the world. That site’s editor had his house raided by police, and the poor Apple employee who lost the prototype in the first place was the butt of jokes on The Late Show and offered a free trip to Germany.

Days later, more prototypes showed up in Vietnam. Eventually Steve Jobs demonstrated the thing at Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference, where a network glitch forced him to skip a large part of his demo.

On June 15th, Apple and AT&T processed 600,000 pre-orders, despite widespread network issues that left many would-be customers frustrated. Sales were so high [1. Apple’s most successful pre-order ever, and 10x the orders AT&T saw for the 3GS] that shipping dates had to be adjusted and AT&T suspended pre-orders entirely.

Today, outlets like Best Buy and Radio Shack had significantly fewer iPhones than they expected (several had less than 5) and turned customers away. AT&T stores had no stock for walk-in customers at all. At Apple Stores, sales were brisk while lines were tremendously long.

An odd reception issue that seems to be unique to left-handed customers marred the experience for some while others noticed a yellow splotch on their displays. It turns out that the reception issue can be fixed with a case [2. Or, as Steve Jobs himself said, “Avoid gripping it in the lower left corner.”] while the smudge can be “repaired” with patience.

Finally, Apple announced that it can’t make any white iPhones for a month.

At the end of the day, people are enjoying their new iPhones, making FaceTime calls and trying out iOS 4-optimized apps. Soon we’ll forget how strange this whole ordeal was. But for now … what an odd launch.

Reading on the iPad Pt. 2 – Magazines

This is the second article in my series exploring reading on the iPad. Here’s part 1, newspapers and part 3, iBooks.

People have a special, unique relationship with magazines. They’re companions. Before you get onto a plane, you grab a magazine. We bring them to the beach, the coffee shop and yes, the bathroom.

They’re forgiving. You can fold one and stuff it into a pocket, leave it in a bag or toss it in the back of the car. Did you get a coffee ring on the cover? That’s fine; it’ll dry. You say you only have a few minutes to read? No problem. Bite-sized articles abound. Magazines are inexpensive and familiar.

They’re also in trouble. Newsstand sales for the 472 consumer titles in the United States fell 9.1% in the last half of 2009 versus the same period a year earlier. With the release of the iPad, a segment of the publishing industry is looking for Apple to provide the same salvation that the music industry received from the iPod.

Can an electronic edition of your favorite mag provide the same casual comfort that you’ve come to know?

In this article, I’ll look at two magazines for iPad: WIRED and Outside. But first, let’s review the factors that determine a pleasant reading experience on the iPad.

Communication

Forget the page curls, videos and other tricks. If a magazine app fails to convey the author’s ideas and message to the reader, the rest doesn’t matter.

Navigation

Developers are free to get creative with how users move through their applications. As a result, there’s no standard. Does a given solution enhance or hinder a given app?

Feel

How does the presentation, layout, navigation and so on combine to create an overall feel? Most  importantly, does the app disappear and leave me with the story, or am I aware of the software (and hardware) the entire time?

Uniqueness

What makes a given magazine stand out?

Acquisition

How do I receive new issues or content?

Now, let’s look at some magazines.

WIRED

The first electronic release from Condé Nast, [1. Just this week, Condé Nast confirmed that it will bring The New Yorker to the iPadWIRED Magazine ($4.99) sold 24,000 copies in the first 24 hours. By June 8th that number rose to 79,000 copies, and the app was set to surpass print sales for the month.

That was nearly one month ago (WIRED Magazine for iPad was released on May 26th), and it’s still the only issue available. But that doesn’t mean they’re done. “There is no finish line,” wrote Editor In Chief Chris Anderson. “WIRED will be digital from now on, designed from the start as a compelling interactive experience.” That’s great news, because this is a nice implementation that will be great after after a few changes.

[nggallery id=1]

At first, navigation is a bit confusing. Pages scroll horizontally, and multi-page articles and ads scroll vertically. Swiping left and right moves you through the magazine. Unfortunately, some of the multi-page articles provide visual cues that they scroll vertically, but not all.

However, tap any page and all becomes clear. A menu bar appears that reveals a table of contents on the left and a gorgeous overview on the right. The length, synopsis and even keywords of each page is clearly presented. Let the doves descend from a sun-filled sky because this is so clear and effective it must be of supernatural origin. Well done, WIRED.

If navigation is good, the feel is great. WIRED’s bold design, colors and images are well represented in this app. It’s undeniably an issue of WIRED.

Best of all, the developers took advantage of of the medium with lots of interactive features.

For instance, the “Invaders from Mars” feature presents an image of the red planet and the man-made machines that have paid it a visit. Slowly swiping across the image rotates it, revealing a photo and brief history of each mission. The illusion of “spinning” the planet is very well done and kind of addictive (you’ll find yourself whirling the planet around even after you’ve read all of the text).

Some articles, like “Riverboat Resurrection,” let you toggle between related photos without leaving the article. A great example of this explains what goes into Lea and Perrin’s Worcestershire Sauce. As you tap between the numbered steps, a new ingredient is revealed. Others include a clip of related audio or video. It feels like a webpage, so it’s familiar, but it’s much faster, so it’s more satisfying.

I spent 10 minutes playing with Worcestershire Sauce. Not even Worcestershire Sauce, but an article about what goes into Worcestershire Sauce. Now that’s engaging content.

I don’t know if other publications would be able to pull this off. As a tech-y magazine for geeks, this type of flash just “fits” into WIRED. I can’t imagine Vogue, for example, using the same tricks without seeming gimmicky. WIRED for iPad is unique in very good way.

Acquisition is a mystery as only 1 issue has been released, so we’re left to talk about communication. WIRED for iPad is successful in this regard for one simple reason: It’s fun.

It’s fun two spin Mars around, to look at pictures of Pixar and explore how a frame is assembled. I’m pulled into the experience and as a result riveted to the content.

The app has its faults, of course. The price is too high ($5 per issue at this point), it’s huge at nearly 1/2 a gig and there are a LOT of ads. But what’s good about this app is so good that I’m willing to overlook the bad.

Outside

I was thrilled to see long-time favorite Outside ($2.99, universal) hit the iPad. The photography and the gear/gadget reviews have had me hooked for years. The iPad edition mostly works for me.

[nggallery id=2]

The navigation is instantly usable to anyone who’s browsed the web within the last 5 years. To begin, swipe through the covers of issues you’ve downloaded. Once you’ve tapped a selection, a toolbar displays icons for each section, and an overview screen presents what’s available from each department. Best of all, there’s a tutorial on “how to navigate.” Nice!

Acquisition is simple if a bit time-consuming. The app checks for new content at every launch. It only takes a moment and, if it does find something, it asks before beginning the download. My suggestion is to accept when you aren’t really in the mood to read, as the downloads take a while.

What’s unique about this app is its gallery. It pulls all the photos from every article and displays them together. You can easily flick through the pictures without seeing a lick of text. Before you scoff (“The whole point is reading, Dave”) consider how many times you’ve flipped through the pages of a magazine, looking at the pictures without reading a single syllable. See?

Feel is where Outside for the iPad loses me. I’ve gotten into the habit of taking it with me to EMS to show a salesperson exactly what I want. Yes, I could do that with the iPad but I probably won’t for fear of  A.) looking like a tool and B.) dropping or misplacing the thing. Extracting a crumpled magazine from a cargo pocket is one thing. Flinging a $500 computer around a store — especially for a scratch-0-phobe — is another.

That’s not the app’s fault but it does speak to the core of magazines on an iPad. Like I said, people think of magazines as their rough-and-tumble companions. They’re the Jeeps of the publishing world: utilitarian and ready for duty. Even with a case, the iPad is, well, a delicate computer. I’m not going to hand it to Janie the Sales Clerk in hopes that she can find the Tevas I’m after.

That’s where the disconnect will be for many. Not the implantation. The teams behind WIRED and Outside have pulled off their projects spectacularly well. How many will be comfortable brining the iPads on the planes, beaches and bathrooms of the world for a quick read?

Would you?

White iPhone delayed until late July

From Apple:

“White models of Apple’s new iPhone 4 have proven more challenging to manufacture than expected, and as a result they will not be available until the second half of July. The availability of the more popular iPhone 4 black models is not affected.”

I knew something was up when leaked Best Buy inventory reports showed not one single white iPhone. Apple has produced white iPhones in the past, of course, but never white glass. The rear cases have always been plastic. It will be interesting to see where the manufacturing glitch is.

I’m reminded of Henry Ford: “The public can have any color it wants, as long as it’s black.”