Saturday, July 17, 2010

On Swords, Perspective, and Spin…

Although I thought Apple started off a little too defensive yesterday, when you boil it down, I thought they did the right thing. If you're having a problem and a case can fix it, here, have a free case. If you already bought a case, they'll refund the money you paid for that case. If you bought an iPhone 4 and the problem keeps you from being able to use or enjoy your phone, they'll take it back, no restocking fee, no questions asked.

All other issues aside, I'm not sure what more Apple could or should have done. There aren't many products that come with an unconditional guarantee any more, yet reading some of the output of various so-called tech "journalists" since yesterday's press conference, it seems that there are many who think that Apple didn't do enough and didn't "do the right thing". Short of Apple's senior management taking out swords and falling on them (at least proverbially, if not literally), I don't think anything would have made certain journalists (and I use the term very loosely) happy.

Of course, it's not exactly good for the tech press if this quietly goes away or turns out to be much ado about nothing. They're having a grand old time and raking in a lot of page hits on this whole "antennagate" thing they've created, so I guess it's understandable that they don't want to accept a reasonable response from Apple. They clearly wanted nothing less than a fall from grace… an admission that Apple didn't design or test properly. Instead, they got treated to a number of facts that didn't jive with what they wanted to hear. They were shown other phones experiencing similar phenomenon. They were shown a little about the testing procedures the phone went through and the investment Apple has made toward testing their antenna designs. They were shown, in short, why Steve doesn't think they did anything wrong.

The natural reaction to cognitive dissonance is anger, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised by the angry diatribes from some sectors of the tech press, especially those who aren't fans of Apple to begin with. But anybody who expected anything else out of yesterday's conference call are either intentionally stoking the fires for their own benefit or else they're morons who fail to realize there are perspectives other than their own. Perspective is an interesting thing, and it's not quite the same thing as "spin", which it is often mistaken for. Perspective is your own world view. It's a combination of a whole bunch of things that make up the way one person thinks about things: their likes, dislikes, biases, priorities, and fears. Spin, on the other hand, is when somebody intentionally tries to conflate facts, or select facts to make their position look better.

And make no mistake, we saw some spin yesterday. Some of the statistics early on were very carefully selected. The iPhone 4 dropped call rate being 1 in 100 less more than the 3Gs call drop rate, for example, sounds small, but what was the 3Gs' dropped call rate? If it was 1 in 10,000, then that's a statistically huge change. If it was 3 in 100, then it's statistically tiny, probably within the margin of error. We weren't given enough information to know what that statistic meant. If I had to guess, I'd say the difference was probably statistically significant (though not necessarily huge) or they wouldn't have presented the data that way.

But, even with the spin, it was pretty clear that from Steve's perspective Apple went through a very rational, valid design and testing process and achieved something pretty amazing. And I tend to agree. I wouldn't easily give up my iPhone 4 now. It's an amazing piece of technology. It really is. I love just holding the damn thing in my hand. It's such a refreshing change from all the cheap plastic consumer devices in my life. Every other device that the iPhone manages to replace in my life (my point and shoot camera was the latest casualty), the happier I am. I would quite honestly give up using cell phones before I'd let somebody replace my iPhone 4 with a junky plastic Blackberry or Nokia phone with their confusing, poorly written and terribly designed software.

Now, that's not meant to downplay the antenna issue, because for some people it is real and a hassle, I'm just stating my own perspective. Regardless of your perspective, however, the evidence seems to show that statistically speaking, most people in most places are going to have better reception with this phone. All design is about tradeoffs and all products are designed to meet the needs of a wide variety of people. Moving to an external antenna system was a conscious choice that Apple made, and it appears to have been well thought-out, researched, and tested. A conscious design decision was made that would make more room for battery and additional sensors and gadgets while making the phone more solid feeling and still thinner than any previous phone. The tradeoff, other than the obvious ones of manufacturing costs, was the increased possibility for attenuation. Now, we know, thanks to Anandtech, that this attenuation can cause a reduction of up to 24dBm of signal strength. We also know that that amount makes no measurable difference in data speed or voice reception for most users in most locations. Months ago, before the iPhone 4 came out, and without the benefit of hindsight or knowing what kind of media circus would ensue, that almost certainly would have seemed like a perfectly valid tradeoff. "Wait, if we do this, most people, most of the time will have better reception and we can make the phone smaller and have better battery life and fit a gyroscope, and the only tradeoff is that some people in some situations if they hold the phone in a certain way will have one or two less bars? Great!"

Was it the right decision? Well, with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps not if you factor in the negative publicity they've gotten. But, was the decision the kind of stupid mistake that deserves payment in blood? Absolutely not. Even suggesting it is ridiculous.

The iPhone is a consumer product. It's like off-the-rack clothing. It's not custom tailored to any one individual. It's the product of a long series of design decisions trying to make the best product for the largest section of the population. If you're an outlier - if you're one of those people for whom the issue is preventing you from using the phone, put it in a free case, or bring it back. Apple will give you your money back, AT&T will let you out of your contract. No questions asked, no restocking fee. You're then free to go find a phone that works better for you.

If you want or expect more than that, you've got pretty serious entitlement issues. If you don't want to do that because you think you can't find a better phone, then maybe you need to re-assess your own perspective.



26 comments:

imabuddha said...

Small correction: the iPhone 4's call drop rate is actually slightly more not less than the 3GS.

AJ said...

Well said Jeff, I couldn't agree more. I guess when you build products that you say "just work" people will take every chance to give it to you when they don't work as expected.

The iPhone and iOS4 are so far ahead of everyone else that the vitriol is a little misguided methinks.

As you said, the Blackberries and Nokias of the world can't compare with the hardware and I just can't LOOK at an Android interface - so chunky and clunky - inelegant.

Anyway, well said.

Adam

Tom Ortega said...

I agree. I have not been following antennagate and it seems I didn't miss much.

The press just can't wait for Apple to fall from grace. They want it to happen so bad, that they're willing to blow things outta proportion to make it happen.

Good writeup as always.

Dad said...

I think the slightly higher call drop rate is the result of the iPhone 4 being able to actually make calls in places the iPhone 3G/3GS would just say "NOPE". So the iPhone 4 is spending more time trying to maintain calls under worse reception conditions.

One result is a slightly higher dropped call rate.
The other results is that we can make calls where we couldn't before.

The press seems to want to focus on the former and not the latter, which just seems lame to me.

vrad said...

Applause!

This is the most reasonable take on this entire situation.

Also, I agree with Dad about that factor too. At least, that has been my personal experience (My home is a dead spot for nearly all networks, in NYC. The iPhone 4 receives a signal when the 3GS never even did before. With the 3GS, it had to be balanced along the edge of my window sill to receive a signal. I can place the iPhone 4 anywhere in the house, but consequently, I also drop a lot more calls (since I dont stand right against the window, where the signal is strongest, to talk anymore).

Also, another aspect no one has really explored is the psychological one in this case. Fact is that all phones have weak spots (even my 5 year old Samsung dumbphone). However, in the iPhone this weak spot is extremely visible. This, it seems to me, has led to a lot of the outrage too. (I am not ignoring that there might be different mechanics in play here with the iPhone, compared to other phones, however, the net effect is the same i.e. dropping in signal strength, albeit, more amplified in the iPhone 4.).

Kitwana said...

"I love just holding the damn thing in my hand. "

I'm glad to hear that it's not just me who is in awe of the look and feel of the iPhone 4.

I had already made up my mind that I was not going to give my iPhone back in the event of a recall.

darrelplant said...

An old friend of mine who works for a non-ATT service provider has sent me several tirades in the past day berating Apple for letting the issue "fester" (what, for all of three weeks?) to the point where they had to call a giant press conference about it. As I pointed out, I doubt that the reaction would have been good if Apple had just put out a press release about their plans.

He claimed that when he tried to type "Apple" that spellcheck turned it into "apoplectic", but I think he may just be "appleplectic."

Jeff LaMarche said...

Darrel:

I think there's an argument that Apple didn't respond well enough or fast enough. But my sympathy for that argument is tempered by asking myself what would I have done differently in their place?

If we take them at their word that they didn't think this would be an issue and they were caught off guard, what do you do in their position? You investigate, and that takes time. You can't "fix" a problem until you understand it.

At first, I'm sure they thought it was just isolated people and it would blow over. I never thought it would become such a big deal; I'm sure Apple didn't either.

But the proof is in the pudding. They're still selling them as fast as they can make them.

robborg said...

Thanks for this post Jeff.

Yes Apple & Steve did handle it very well. I had thought similarly on the "<1" statistic. Something which makes me think the difference between 3GS & 4 is Steve's attachment to his bumpers and cases theory.

Recently I saw ex-Intel chairman Craig Barret's entrepreneurial thought leaders presentation where he specifically mentioned how masterfully Apple have been able to "invent the rules" with their products. They're big enough and effective enough at this that each time they do it the competitors are left at the starting line (or finding themselves heading off in what is now the wrong direction). This is a useful way of looking at Apple's success with iPod, mp3 & iTunes and more recently the iPhone, App store and iPad.

Now having said that, I think that Apple has deftly used the iPhone 4 conference to "reinvented the rules" about what to expect from signal strength issues on smartphones. Sure, this curveball was served to them with a lot of mud stuck on it, but I think they've really run with it. They are going all out to redefine the parameters for the signal strength discussion both for consumers and media. Apple must be very confident to be so strongly on the offensive here. By stirring up angry reactions from RIM etc. this helps to cement the new rules because now everyone's talking about it!

Before the conference I couldn't imagine a mobile phone company publishing videos of death grips on their company website. By going with this, we'll see a lot more death grip analysis on review sites of all new smartphones. So I would expect Apple to keep emphasizing this over the coming few months and refocus on having the best cellular performance bar none (no pun intended). The glimpse we got of the size of their investment in this is just scary.

If Apple can successfully capitalize on their vertically integrated strengths they will come out even stronger than they would have here. I already see this happening and they seem to have the unity and purpose which their competitors are lacking.

Empoprises said...

Excellent points on perspective.

Whether or not I agree with Steve Jobs' perspective, or your perspective, the important question to me is not what Apple SAID, but what they DID. And frankly, the bumper case offer is a pretty good offer (no one with a brain expected a recall to happen).

P.S. I saw this via a Louis Gray share in Google Reader. I'm not an iPhone user, but I'm going to subscribe.

Jim said...

I personally think Apple didn't do the right thing.

They admitted there is a problem. Then said everyone has this problem even when it isn't the same problem. Then they said the fix was a bumper. If the bumper covering the aluminum is the problem then quite simply build that material (or any other material with the same properties) around the aluminum region and ship us a new phone.

In addition they quoted numbers that at first seem low but are so much higher than others. For example one other manufacture stated their percentage of users who had called about reception issues and the number was hundreds of times lower than apple's supposedly "very low" number. Also the whole death grip is crap. The majority (I didn't say all) smartphones don't have on spot where you can simply brush you finger across it and cause such drastic call loss. They clearly put a BS spin on all of the "facts".

I love my iPhone 4 and I don't want to return. I hear steve saying he loves me but I just feel like apple screwed me against my will, told me I loved it, then threw me some cash to make "Make it right". On the way out Steve said "You will come crying back". The said part is that he is right.

Jeff LaMarche said...

Jim:

The only way to say this is to put it bluntly: what you're asking for is unreasonable.

First of all, Apple didn't admit there was a problem. They admitted that their phone, like all cell phones, can suffer from attenuation. They admitted little more than a basic law of physics exists.

After the press conference, I tried to recreate the same problem on my wife's Blackberry Curve. Guess what? Yep. Holding the phone normally, but firmly, caused it to lose 3 bars. You don't normally notice it because when you're doing that, the phone is next to your ear.

Yes, the problem is different with an external antenna, but the basic problem is NOT unique to the iPhone. But if you think it makes the phone unusable, return it. They've offered an unconditional money back offer.

Here's a corollary: I'm quite a bit above average height. The vast majority of cars don't work for me. I can't extend my legs all the way when driving. It's neither safe nor comfortable for me to drive in many cars. So, hey… I know! I think the car manufacturers should go back, redesign the cars so they work for tall people like me and then send me a new version of my car, free of charge, because dammit, I like this particular model of car except for this one problem. They certainly knew that tall people exist when they designed it!

Sounds ridiculous, and it is, just like your assertion that Apple should redesign their product and send you a new one.

Even if Apple wanted to take the unprecedented and honestly ridiculous step of redesigning a product for a small percentage of the customers and then give that new product away for free, reality is just not going to cooperate for two reasons:

1) It is not trivial to get materials to permanently adhere to high-grade stainless steel like the steel used in the iPhone 4's antenna system. It's not a matter of "simply building that material". It would require, quite literally, innovating new manufacturing processes, a process that would likely take several months and could impact the reception of the antenna.

2) Any change at all made to the antenna system requires months of testing. Some individual test take over 24 hours to run and there are many tests that have to be run. These phones have a lot of radios in them and even tiny changes can impact reception of one or more of those radios. There's a reason why Apple has 17 anechoic chambers. The process is time-intensive, and some antenna designs have to be scrapped along the way.

If this were a defect (it's not, it's a design decision for which you are an outlier, just like I am with many automobiles), there's no way Apple could ship you a new phone in less than six to eight months (and that would involve a heroic effort on the part of a great many people and would probably prevent one or more other new products from shipping next year. More realistically it would be more than a year. I guarantee you that the iPhone 5 design process has been going on already for at least 6 months. The iPhone 4 design process started well before the iPhone 3Gs shipped.

You've got a choice, and it's a reasonable choice. Use the phone with a case, or return it for your money back. The fact that you may not like that choice doesn't make it an unreasonable one.

dalvian said...

I am curious to see how they handle the quiet recall that has been experienced by some consumers. If it requires a new model of the device to resolve problems, perhaps this is a larger issue than Apple wants to admit.

the said...

"simply brush you finger across it and cause such drastic call loss."
.. I think your exaggerating slightly there. For me that sums up what Jobs was talking about with people taking this out of proportion.
I don't have an iPhone 4 (not out here yet) but the most extreme example I've seen was the video showing the guy holding a finger on the antenna gap and causing the page to stop loading while he held it there. I don't have a link but it was on Daring Fireball.

Regardless, it amazes me how Apple's products are held to such higher standard than other manufacturers' products.
My last phone before I got my first iPhone was a Nokia E52. I had to hard reset it several times a day when it froze (it had many problems, this was the worst). Can you imagine if the iPhone 4 had be hard resetted several times a day? It would be utter madness. The tech blogs would go crazy over it.

The iPhone has problems, sure - my 3GS does things that drive me mad. But I have not seen an Android phone that does not have serious shortcomings - for me the hardware would need to be significantly better than the iPhone 4 to make up for the software.

rritchey said...

The thing that really gets me here is this: The entire presentation was spin, not just the <1 more dropped calls.

The 0.55% is extremely misleading. Even the return rate is misleading.

(For instance, the 0.55% calls to AppleCARE about the iPhone4 antenna issue)

Wow - thats a lot of qualifiers on that one. So, this statistic is only people who:
1. called AppleCARE
2. talked to AppleCARE ONLY about the iPhone4 antenna issue

Looks to me like a lot of people are getting left out.
People who:
1. walked into an Apple store
2. walked into an ATT store
3. called ATT
4. called AppleCARE and were mismarked
5. called AppleCARE and talked about things other than the antenna issue first - so were marked as something else
6. returned the phone without calling support
7. purchased a case to fix the problem without calling - because they saw the coverage of it online and didn't want to wait for Apples response
8. - I think you get the point.

All statistics are spins. Period. You are never given enough information to understand the statistic, and you are asked to assume the statistic is based on good data - when it likely isn't.

Also - the whole "other phones have this problem too" thing is BS. True, all phones suffer from attenuation when you hold them a certain way. The problem with the iPhone4 is that Apple decided to place the problem location in a spot that is hundreds of times more likely to be hit. Couple that with the poor reception that ATT already has in most of the country, and the worse reception they get with every new iPhone release - because of the influx of new users - and you have a serious problem.

Personally - the attenuation spot could have fairly easily been engineered to be in a location that users are unlikely to touch - the top or bottom of the phone. The sides should always be off limits.

Or - it could have been designed like the Droid X - with a dual-antenna that you would really have to try to attenuate.

And anyone who thinks the iPhone4 has left its competitors behind is obviously not keeping up with the times. iPhone4 was catch-up to Android (except for the retina display thing). iPhone5 is going to be a bigger catch-up game. Its statistically impossible for it not to be - with the short development cycles Google is using.

Jeff LaMarche said...

Rritchey:

Hmm... hard to know how to respond to this. You call all statistics spin (an opinion I'm not unsympathetic to), but if they hadn't given any statistics, they would have been accused to hiding things.

As for the entire session being spin… well… it was a press conference, so certainly you should have expected Apple to present the situation in the best light for them, but it wasn't all spin. Much of the conference was clearly devoted to showing their perspective.

I love how you state that this could "easily" been engineered to a new spot. Are you an antenna engineer? Can you back up that statement. I was thinking the same thing, but I'm pretty sure it's not true. It's not just the relative size of the antennas that factor into reception, it's the location relative to the other antennas, distance between, radius of non-parallel parts. You're assuming that it's "easy", but your assumption isn't valid. It's the result of ignorance of the actual process, something Apple was trying to dispel with their "spin".

But if everything's spin, so there's nothing I can say to convince you because anything you don't like or agree with will just be written off as spin. Great way to avoid cognitive dissonance, for sure, but not very practical.

Probably your best bet is to go get a Droid X. I don't know if you've heard, but if you bought an iPhone 4, you can return it, no restocking fee, no questions asked. Please, if you bought one, return it, quickly.

Jeff LaMarche said...

"iPhone4 was catch-up to Android (except for the retina display thing)"

Oh, my word.. that's just silly. I've done a fair bit of Android development, have two Android phones, and the only response I could come up with to this statement was an incredulous laugh.

But, by all means, go Android, dude... go feel all superior somewhere else where people care about your uninformed opinion.

pottinger said...

Got no problem with my Sony x10 :)

ScottYelich said...

I'm in NYC. I have lousy AT&T signal strength in most places (ie: old work, new work, home, near home parks). My 3GS seemed to drop almost all calls over a certain length of time (1 to 3 minutes), although I'm sure that's just me misremembering. I've tried the iPhone 4 and it seems to hold on a little better. Yes, I can death grip it and cause it to drop signal strength, but I can also not try to do that and it seems to do just fine. Even before the 4.0.1 update, I knew that bars = lies. Ah, 5 bars, I should be able to hold a call... call, drops to 1-2 bars... then calls fails. Yay 3GS. Now, at least I can see the 2-3 bars and know beforehand that a drop is likely. Luckily, I'm using the phone primarily for the CPU/internet and I can wait out the (promised?) network improvements. I know AT&T service (in NYC) seems to be frustrating for everyone anyway.

Orville Chomer said...

While Apple has waived their restocking fee, AT&T has not. So, if you are not sure that you are going to keep the iPhone 4, buy it at an Apple store not an AT&T store.

It is true that you have 30 days to get out of your AT&T contract without paying any sort of penalty.

Jim said...

@Jeff LaMarche,

I think you are in part misunderstanding what I said and some topics I simply disagree.

I work for a defense contractor and while I am not an antenna engineer I am a system engineer and architect and I have a number of antenna engineers who work for me. I have managed several projects where there were difficulties with antennas on ruggedized cell phones when people bumped them into things. We had a last minute issue where we missed part of the antenna and have to do a last minute extremely thin coating of the antenna area which was exposed. It took 2 weeks to get new devices. Simply coating a device in a know material which can fix the problem in an extremely thin coat does not require extensive tests not for the military and certainly not for apple. Our team simply missed an area which we thought was coated but wasent. Only a idiot would have suggested not coating the device. There is a reason you have to squeeze the other phones and you only have to touch the iphone and it isn't because apple showed you where to touch.

To address your comment about "First of all, Apple didn't admit there was a problem." They did admit there was a problem. But then they generalized there problem that would apply to many phones. (Squeeze the phone not simply touch one spot on the phone). Many of the other phones you can hold at a reasonable pressure and not see an issue. I know this because my company uses several off the shelf sell phones and have tested it in our labs and the government's lab (Which make Apple's look like something from ten years ago). This deception I have a problem with.

As I said before I don't want to get rid of my phone and giving me my money back isn't "The right thing to do". If I go to a restaurant and order a steak rare and the bring me a piece of burnt steak then tell me if I don't like it I can get our if I don't like it and they give me my money back it isn't "The right thing to do" it may be the something better than telling me to just eat it weather I like it or not but it simply isn't the way you should treat your customers when as Steve said "We love our customers and want them to be happy".

I hope you can see your car reference is not the same as they could very simply coat the antena and send the phones back. I know this because I have done it for a more demanding customer than apple. It doesn't take long and doesn't effect the phone much if at all and would certainly not requirement them to retest to the same level they had originally.

Jim said...

@Jeff LaMarche,

I think you are in part misunderstanding what I said and some topics I simply disagree.

I work for a defense contractor and while I am not an antenna engineer I am a system engineer and architect and I have a number of antenna engineers who work for me. I have managed several projects where there were difficulties with antennas on ruggedized cell phones when people bumped them into things. We had a last minute issue where we missed part of the antenna and have to do a last minute extremely thin coating of the antenna area which was exposed. It took 2 weeks to get new devices. Simply coating a device in a know material which can fix the problem in an extremely thin coat does not require extensive tests not for the military and certainly not for apple. Our team simply missed an area which we thought was coated but wasent. Only a idiot would have suggested not coating the device. There is a reason you have to squeeze the other phones and you only have to touch the iphone and it isn't because apple showed you where to touch.

To address your comment about "First of all, Apple didn't admit there was a problem." They did admit there was a problem. But then they generalized there problem that would apply to many phones. (Squeeze the phone not simply touch one spot on the phone). Many of the other phones you can hold at a reasonable pressure and not see an issue. I know this because my company uses several off the shelf sell phones and have tested it in our labs and the government's lab (Which make Apple's look like something from ten years ago). This deception I have a problem with.

As I said before I don't want to get rid of my phone and giving me my money back isn't "The right thing to do". If I go to a restaurant and order a steak rare and the bring me a piece of burnt steak then tell me if I don't like it I can get our if I don't like it and they give me my money back it isn't "The right thing to do" it may be the something better than telling me to just eat it weather I like it or not but it simply isn't the way you should treat your customers when as Steve said "We love our customers and want them to be happy".

I hope you can see your car reference is not the same as they could very simply coat the antena and send the phones back. I know this because I have done it for a more demanding customer than apple. It doesn't take long and doesn't effect the phone much if at all and would certainly not requirement them to retest to the same level they had originally.

Jim said...

Jeff LaMarche,

I think you are in part misunderstanding what I said and some topics I simply disagree.

I work for a defense contractor and while I am not an antenna engineer I am a system engineer and architect and I have a number of antenna engineers who work for me. I have managed several projects where there were difficulties with antennas on ruggedized cell phones when people bumped them into things. We had a last minute issue where we missed part of the antenna and have to do a last minute extremely thin coating of the antenna area which was exposed. It took 2 weeks to get new devices. Simply coating a device in a know material which can fix the problem in an extremely thin coat does not require extensive tests not for the military and certainly not for apple. Our team simply missed an area which we thought was coated but wasent. Only a idiot would have suggested not coating the device. There is a reason you have to squeeze the other phones and you only have to touch the iphone and it isn't because apple showed you where to touch.

To address your comment about "First of all, Apple didn't admit there was a problem." They did admit there was a problem. But then they generalized there problem that would apply to many phones. (Squeeze the phone not simply touch one spot on the phone). Many of the other phones you can hold at a reasonable pressure and not see an issue. I know this because my company uses several off the shelf sell phones and have tested it in our labs and the government's lab (Which make Apple's look like something from ten years ago). This deception I have a problem with.

As I said before I don't want to get rid of my phone and giving me my money back isn't "The right thing to do". If I go to a restaurant and order a steak rare and the bring me a piece of burnt steak then tell me if I don't like it I can get our if I don't like it and they give me my money back it isn't "The right thing to do" it may be the something better than telling me to just eat it weather I like it or not but it simply isn't the way you should treat your customers when as Steve said "We love our customers and want them to be happy".

I hope you can see your car reference is not the same as they could very simply coat the antena and send the phones back. I know this because I have done it for a more demanding customer than apple. It doesn't take long and doesn't effect the phone much if at all and would certainly not requirement them to retest to the same level they had originally.

Jim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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