Apple on Friday issued a rare public apology for a years-old programming flaw in its iPhone series of smartphones that the company says overstates the quality of the device's wireless connection. This, Apple claims, is the reason why so many iPhone 4 users have experienced connection problems. But the explanation seems to skirt around the root cause of the problem. That is, that the iPhone 4's complicated new antennae system simply doesn't work properly.
"Users observing a drop of several bars \\[which measures connection strength\\] 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," Apple claims. "Their big drop in bars is because their high bars were never real in the first place."
In other words, according to Apple, there's nothing uniquely wrong with the iPhone 4. Instead, every iPhone ever manufactured has erroneously overstated the device's signal strength. And with the iPhone 4, holding the device in a certain way (i.e., left-handed) causes it to magically display the correct signal strength.
"We will issue a free software update within a few weeks that incorporates the corrected formula," the Apple statement continues. "Since this mistake has been present since the original iPhone, this software update will also be available for the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 3G." (But not the original iPhone, as Apple doesn't support products more than two years old.)
As I noted in Friday's Short Takes, iPhone users have almost universally slammed AT&T for its poor wireless network, despite the fact that AT&T's network seems to work better for non-iPhone users. This, I wrote, suggests that some of the animosity users have directed at AT&T was better directed at Apple. Last week's admission by Apple verifies this. In fact, part of Apple's upcoming fix involves "adopting AT&T’s recently recommended formula for calculating how many bars to display for a given signal strength."
Customers who are unhappy with the iPhone 4's reception can return the device for a full refund within 30 days of purchase. Since the iPhone 4 first shipped to customers on June 24, this suggests that Apple's promised fix will be provided by July 24, so customers have a chance to see if that really does correct the problem and then act accordingly.
Unfortunately for Apple, the iPhone 4's connection problems are in fact related to how people hold the device. In test after test online, users have demonstrated the device loading web pages fine when held in a certain fashion and then failing to load them at all when held in another way. The only sure-fire way to prevent this problem is to hold the device in a certain way or to use a $29 Apple "bumper" accessory case that prevents the hand from touching the affected area. A class action lawsuit is already underway by customers upset about this issue.
Apple's newest smartphone also suffers from other annoying defects, including yellow-splotched screens on some devices and a weird yellowing effect in photos taken with the iPhone 4's camera. The iPhone 4 (and the related iOS4 software update) also slows Exchange syncing down dramatically; Microsoft says it is helping Apple develop a fix for that problem. Additionally, a bug in the iPhone proximity sensor causes the device screen to go black at inopportune times.
What this all points to is an endemic problem with Apple's secrecy-based development process, which prevents the company from adequately testing its products in the real world before release. Were the company more concerned about creating high quality products and less about event marketing, flaws of this number and magnitude would never make their way into the hands of tens of millions of customers.