Jobs Knew: Form over function decision resulted in antenna mess

by Bharat Suneja

Unfortunately, the obsession with magical industrial design and good looks trumped over engineering and functionality. Another day when form defeated function. Or as some would say, beauty lorded over brains. And the rest is history.

With all the brouhaha surrounding the iPhone 4 antenna issue, you can’t be blamed for thinking why the brilliant engineers and designers at Apple didn’t realize the new antenna design might cause issues. And if they did— did they inform management about it? You can stop wondering now— Bloomberg reports Apple’s senior engineer and antenna expert Ruben Cabarello raised the concern with management. Interestingly, it wasn’t something noticed at the last moment, a few days before launch, but as early as last year!

According to Bloomberg, a carrier partner also raised the concern with Apple.

iPhone 4 Grip of Death
Photo courtesy Gizmodo

The latest model of the iPhone carries a metal antenna that surrounds the outside of the device — a design chosen by Apple executives because it yielded a lighter, thinner handset. It has also resulted in reception problems that led Consumer Reports to refrain from endorsing the iPhone 4, weighed on the company’s shares and stepped up pressure on Apple to issue a fix.

Bloomberg notes Apple is neither commenting on the story, nor making Cabarello available for comment. More in Apple Engineer Told Jobs IPhone Antenna Might Cut Calls.

Daniel Lyons questions in Newsweek:

Shouldn’t Apple have seen this coming? I’m not an engineer, but even I know that if you put your hand on an antenna, you mess up its performance. Yet Apple plowed ahead with the design. That brings me back to that Hertzfeld story from the Macintosh days. Jobs is not an engineer, but he likes to think of himself as a world-class design guru. He believes he is not creating products but art. This is partly why Apple puts so much emphasis on the way things look. But this time around, I think Jobs got seduced by what seemed to be a really cool and clever design, and his engineers couldn’t talk him out of it.

Senator Chuck Schumer wrote to Steve Jobs today demanding Apple “set the record straight on glitch affecting new iPhone, and provide a fix for the ‘death grip’ problem fee of charge”:

I ask that Apple provide iPhone 5 customers with a clearly written explanationof the cause of the reception problem and make a public commitment to remedy it free-of-charge.

Apple is holding a press conference on Friday (7/16), possibly to discuss how it’ll address the issue.

The recent iPhone 4 coverage on Exchangepedia may have seemed excessive at first. However, this latest revelation, the Consumer Reports verdict, and our own real-world experience with the “Grip of Death” indicate the issue deserves the issue deserves the attention it’s getting. Previous posts on the iPhone 4:

Also of interest, the iPhone 4’s issues with Exchange ActiveSync (EAS):

Innovation, Design, and Attitude

There’s no denying that Apple products are some of the more inspiring pieces of industrial design we’ve seen in recent times. Whether it’s the aluminium case of Apple’s computer products— the MacBooks, the iMac, the iMac, or the sexy Mac Mini (even sexier in its new form), or the simplified user interfaces that allow you to do a few things well, Apple products are nothing if not well-designed. The iPhone 4 is clearly a beautiful device with many great features, remarkable for its design. Needless to say, innovation and making bold product design decisions comes with its own risks.

However, flawed as it is, this entire Antenna-Gate episode isn’t really about the antenna. It’s about Apple’s attitude, and how it treats its customers. Here are the recent events, in light of this revelation:

  • Steve Jobs, knowing about the antenna concerns raised by its own antenna expert, chose to respond to an Apple customer with “you’re holding it wrong”!
  • Apple, knowing about the concerns raised by its own engineers at the design stage, and by its carrier before the iPhone 4 was released, chose to release the device nevertheless.
  • As pressure from customers and the media increased, Apple responded with its now famous “We’re stunned” response, blaming the issue on the “wrong formula” used to display the signal bars on the iPhone 4.
  • In the above response, Apple also dragged competitors’ devices in the argument, and also stated that previous iPhone models suffered from the same issue!
  • User complaints and plenty of demos on YouTube and other sites, and perhaps thousands of blog posts and tens of thousands of tweets later, Apple still hasn’t acknowledged the issue as a design flaw, nor provided a remedy.
  • It took very clear, credible, and scientific demo from Consumer Reports and the resulting decline in Apple stock, however little, for Apple to announce a press conference.

As cries of product recall grow louder, a certain section of the media and the blogosphere calls the idea baseless. Financial analysts are already calculating the cost of a recall.

All this is easily fixed by acknowledging the design flaw, and providing a free iPhone 4 bumper to customers. Apple chose not to do either, although this may change tomorrow. (InfoWorld’s Robert Cringely concludes: If Apple had done that from the get go, we’d all be talking about something more interesting right now, like Lindsay Lohan or those Russian spies.) As much as we may love Apple’s products, these revelations should make us think twice before buying an Apple product.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Anatoly July 15, 2010 at 10:10 am

Stop whining already. iPhone is just another phone. Yes, it has some issues. Get over it, or don’t buy one.

If you had to write as many posts about every faulty WinMo device, you’d run out of time and disk space.


Bharat Suneja July 15, 2010 at 10:33 am

As noted in this post, the issue isn’t so much about the antenna itself. All devices and all software have flaws. I suspect the issue wouldn’t have received the attention if Apple hadn’t trumpeted the revolutionary antenna design during the launch and later, and the company’s disingenuous responses over the past few days.


Mobile Dude July 15, 2010 at 12:29 pm

So what you’re really saying is you’re OK being lied to? Amazing how fanboys will jump to compare iPhone to Winmo (btw, Winmo is dead!). MS doesn’t make the phones – it merely licenses its OS to device manufacturers. And for all their troubles, Winmo devices were the best smartphones (and only game in town besides blackberry, until the iPhone came along.)


Jonathan Merrill July 15, 2010 at 11:07 am

I tire too of reading Apple zealots dragging WinMo devices through the dirt as any kind of exmaple of the acceptance of bad acts.

The core issue is arrogance and how it effects consumers.

Apple felt economic pressures to release the phone, they did so at a risk, and now they must address it. That is straight business.

What gets me is how consumers get treated along the way. Thus why the post is valid and we need to vote with our checkbook.


Meg On A Trip July 15, 2010 at 11:29 am

Wow – surprised, but not stunned! Steve Jobs has been making it all up!! Hey Steve, was that all “hold different” stuff and “we’re stunned” responses a big lie? Tell me it ain’t so!


DJ July 15, 2010 at 1:24 pm

This blog has gone from a great Exchange knowledge blog to a Apple bashing blog. I know you work for Microsoft now so you have to hate the competitor but stick with the substance of Exchange and let Apple hurt their own image. After-all its called Exchangepedia and not Applebashpedia.

Just my 2 cents.


Bharat Suneja July 15, 2010 at 1:50 pm

@DJ: Thanks for the feedback. Although it may come across as such at the moment, I neither hate Apple nor want to indulge in bashing without reason. In fact, I am an Apple customer, still like the iPhone 4, and have praised the iPhone 4 in the same post(s).


Sid Khanna July 15, 2010 at 3:18 pm

This story seems to have a life of its own! Apple will do the right thing tomorrow – I can bet on it. Expect new to ship with the bumper till they fix the design.


Ted Stevens July 16, 2010 at 9:38 am

The more I read about these issues, the more Apple management including Steve Jobs and PR folks come across as clueless in the way they handled this mess. Let’s see what Apple has to say this morning.


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