On the 24th of June, Apple Inc released iPhone 4, with radio antennas for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, 3G and so forth incorporated in the steel frame of the phone itself. Within a few days, as you may have heard, people started noticing that under certain circumstances if you held the phone a certain way you could lose the 3G signal. Over the next few weeks this blew up into a maelstrom that has become known as "Antennagate".
You know all that
On the 16th of July, Steve Jobs and key Apple executives held a press conference to demonstrate that the antenna's performance wasn't that big of a problem and offer free rubber bumpers to stop you actually touching the antenna and thus alleviate the problem.They made much of the highly skilled engineers at Apple and the millions upon millions of dollars it had spent developing state-of-the-art testing facilities. So when Steve says there's no problem, you believe him, right?
Of course. That's why that was the last anyone heard of it
Oh, except that on the 7th of August, Apple announced Mark Papermaster had departed the company because of "broad cultural incompatibility". Mark Papermaster? At Apple he was senior vice president of devices hardware engineering, reporting directly to the CEO. More than any other individual, he was responsible for the design of the iPhone 4's antenna and for convincing Steve Jobs there wasn't a problem with it.
Looking back to July, he was not one of the key Apple execs who fronted the press, despite the fact that he's probably the guy who knew the most about it. He was notable in his absence.
If I wanted to project an image of everything being all right Jack at Apple, I can't help feeling I'd have held off firing Mark Papermaster for a little bit. If he was broadly incompatible with the culture (whatever that means), then move him, assign him to the Siberian office, but don't fire him until the whole antenna thing blows over.At every step, Apple seems to have been determined to get the maximum bad press out of the iPhone antenna.
Firing Papermaster gets it back into the news again (to wit, this) right when it should have gone away.When the departure was announced, I observed on Twitter that I hoped Papermaster had not been fired over the antenna, because "it's a PR issue not an engineering issue".
I was jumped on by people claiming it as an engineering issue, the antenna design was stupid, there's no way you can put an antenna into a steel frame that people hold and expect it to work - it can't be done and anyone who says otherwise is a ninny. Well, I continued to stand by my ninnitude, and here's why: the iPhone 4's antenna works.
Yep, if I'm in a bad signal area and I try really hard I can drop a bar or two - but in a good signal area, no way. In addition, the Wi-Fi antenna is also incorporated into the same steel frame and the iPhone 4 is markedly better for Wi-Fi than the iPhone 3GS. The antenna works. Honest. When I first heard that the antenna was incorporated into the steel frame I thought "how in the world can they do that?" It seemed unlikely to me. To people who know more than I do about antennas, it seemed impossible.Thing is, though, engineers get paid to look at impossible problems and solve them. I can safely say that pretty much every engineer I have ever met is smarter than I am. I have no idea how you'd wrap an antenna in steel and expect it to work, but Mark Papermaster and his team went and did it. I also haven't the foggiest idea how to build a single-span arch bridge across Sydney Harbour using only the technology available in the 1920s, but if you show me a functioning example I'll take your word it can be done.
There are people in the world who believe that human beings could not possibly have walked on the Moon, simply because they themselves don't know how to do such a thing.
Many of them seem to have Twitter accounts
But I digress. If Apple's response to claims that the iPhone 4 antenna is a fundamentally flawed design is "no it isn't" then the departure of Mark Papermaster could not have been worse timed. The bloggers and conspiracy theorists who claim that Apple knew there was a problem feel vindicated and therefore even angrier about the "there's no problem" press conference. Now they're seething and lying in wait for the next Apple gaffe, real or imagined, to pounce upon. Honestly, Siberia would have been the smarter option.
Matthew JC. Powell can be reached on his new iPhone 4. Go on, try emailing him at email@example.com - he'll get it.
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Issue: 316 | July 2013
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