Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

Beyond an opportunity for a lucky few to visit the surreal and sophisticated wireless testing labs buried deep within the Apple campus, the Steve Jobs "Antennagate" press conference had few surprises in terms of using a tool at Apple's disposal -- its own Bumpers (augmented by those of third parties) -- to address a vulnerability of the iPhone 4 antenna design. The difference between the iPhone 4 and other devices is the clear marking of the spot at which physical contact causes the signal to degrade. Optimists could consider this a visual reminder to avoid contact while pessimists could see a constant reminder of imperfection. Regardless, at its press conference, Apple added – and continues to add -- visual verification of its assertion that multiple handsets (or at least smartphones) can fall victim to a strategic grasp.

Beyond that, the only muted revelation of the day was that AT&T is reporting that the iPhone 4 is monitoring dropped calls on the iPhone 4 at a rate ever so slightly above that of the 3GS. However, the 3GS did not have a reputation for being particularly tenacious at holding on to a call. Indeed, were it not for all the heat the previous iPhone took at AT&T, perhaps Apple would not have had to push for so radical an antenna redesign. Therefore, it would have been interesting to know how the iPhone 4 compared to the AT&T smartphone average (skewed as it is to iPhones anyway), especially given the earlier Apple demonstration of how other smartphones can suffer from attenuation.

In noting that the iPhone 3GS's similarity to the iPhone 3G enabled more consumers to leave their store with a case, Steve Jobs offered a plausible explanation for the iPhone 4's nominally worse track record at AT&T (even though the 3GS's antenna was not as exposed as the iPhone 4's). Apple's display of its extensive testing facilities may have allayed concerns that it does not do enough to test the performance of its devices. However, if the company were to announce its new handsets far in advance of shipping them, third parties -- and perhaps Apple itself -- would have had more time to build up volumes of iPhone cases. Regardless, Jobs' hypothesis served as a good segue to the case giveaway.

Apple's case giveaway represents a compromise for those who would like to have their cake and eat it, too.


Ultimately, despite Apple's minimalist Bumper design and implication of Consumer Reports' blessing of supplying cases, the case giveaway represents a compromise for those who would like to have their cake and eat it, too -- enjoying the iPhone's naked industrial design while achieving the best possible signal quality. The notion of a recall given the low incidence of complaints and the lack of a safety concern was absurd, as was redesigning the handset on such short notice, although Apple will clearly gain takeaways from this experience for the next iPhone.

The antenna problem simply lacks a perfect solution. Apple displayed good faith while acknowledging and explaining the thorny reality and tradeoffs inherent in handset design, tradeoffs acknowledged even in Nokia's response. It has also left open the refund opportunity for those for whom the free case isn't a satisfying enough gesture. However -- as trends have indicated to this point -- few customers will likely avail themselves of that ultimate recourse.


Ross Rubin is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.