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.