Apple's dedication to technological design has rarely been questioned, but the iPhone 4's reported antenna issues are forcing many to reconsider. Being a community that discusses and promotes good design, we felt it would be interesting to analyze the "Antennagate" issue and how Apple has been handling it. Many blogs and news sites have approached the situation from a marketing/pr perspective but few have considered the implications of this problem from a purely design-based angle. We'd like to give you our thoughts and hope you'll share some of yours in return…
Graph showing the iPhone 4's initial sale numbers compared to other recent tech releases via IT Pro Portal
In the documentary film Objectified, industrial designer Dieter Rams states that very few companies "take design seriously." Rams continues by saying that Apple, at the moment, is that company. After watching Steve Jobs or Jonathan Ives speak about their products it is clear they are impassioned by what they do. Consequently, Apple has been consistently leading the way in consumer electronics with every product they make. After selling 1.7 million devices within 3 days, Jobs was happy to claim that the iPhone 4 was the most successful product launch in Apple's history. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to savor that moment for too long.
Within days of its release, the world quickly began to publicize the effect of the "death grip". Bridging the external antenna together with your hand can cause the phone to drastically loose reception. *Note that despite the widespread backlash, not all users are reporting this issue. Not surprisingly, the Internet's collective response came swiftly. There were numerous parodies, videos, and hacks to fix the problem. A few lawsuits have even been filed against Apple claiming that the design is faulty.
The exposed metal band which, when touched, reduces signal strength in some iPhones.
After an initial, rash email sent by Jobs instructing a concerned owner to "just don't hold it that way" Apple began to realize the problem was not going to just disappear. They released an official statement and later organized a press conference as well as developed a webpage dedicated entirely to their explanation of the iPhone 4's antenna issue (as well as attempt to share the blame with other smartphones). In the press conference Jobs is understandably frustrated and visibly tired. For the most part he appears empathetic (but not necessarily apologetic) as he attempts to clearly explain the reasoning for the antenna issue, stating it is simply a "fact of life" for any mobile phone user.
So what does this all mean? Do we buy the "fact of life argument?" Well, we understand that antenna attenuation is a problematic engineering feat that must be met. Spencer Webb does an excellent job of explaining the difficulties of this challenge. But to begin our argument, we'd like to refer back to Dieter Rams (a man Jonathan Ives has clearly been inspired by). Rams developed a simple "10 Principles of Good Design". In it, he claims, "Good design is consequent to the last detail". Apple's designers unfortunately failed in this regard. A user should be able to hold a mobile phone in a normal fashion (especially for a left handed person) without causing it to loose functionality. It is the challenge of the engineers and designers to develop a way that a user's normal experience with the phone is not inhibited by the design (or lack there of). This isn't an impossible task. They did it with the previous iPhone generations. The problem is the new, external antenna technology which is admittedly very impressive and comes with a lot of benefits; however, those benefits don't outweigh the functionality issues they're causing. Apple needs to find a way to implement the external antenna system without causing such a drastic loss in signal strength. Until they do, it simply should not have been included in their phones. Apple does a great job of making intuitive design — their software and devices are often easy to learn and experience. Yet Apple seemed genuinely surprised when people were upset that the common task of holding their phone was causing signal loss.
New Motorola ad attempting to capitalize from the antenna backlash.
Apple's response was predictable. They offered a full refund with the restocking fee waved for unsatisfied customers. Additionally, they've established a case program which allows every iPhone 4 customer to select a case that will be mailed to them for free. We like to think of this as the "IKEA model" where it now takes more than one package in order for an item to achieve full functionality. Although the case may alleviate the antenna issues, it does not excuse the phone's flaw.
Evaluating the design of the iPhone 4 isn't an easy process. In fact, it made us truly question what design is and what it should do. Can we excuse a major flaw when there are so many other incredible things the phone can do? Unfortunately we have to answer "no." The iPhone 4 contains many technological and engineering achievements and it continues Apple's legacy of pushing the limits of current technology and consumer expectations. The failure lies within the decrease of functionality when a user interacts with the phone on a very predictable, basic level. This positive/negative analysis might seem a bit paradoxical, however, Consumer Reports had a similar response to the iPhone 4 conundrum. They awarded the iPhone 4 the highest ratings of any smartphone on the market, yet they could not recommend it due to the antenna issue.
User holding the iPhone 4 in the "death grip". Image courtesy Georg Holzer.
Design is challenging and Apple isn't perfect. It's important to recognize failures in order to move forward. Overall, Apple has been doing a commendable job approaching this quite difficult situation. We have full confidence they will bounce back from this with a revised iPhone design and other great performing products. And quite frankly we're happy to see that even Apple, a company which people frequently accuse of having a religious following, isn't above criticism from their consumers. Because the best mistakes are ones we can learn from.
Do you have an opinion on the "Antennagate" issue? Share it with us below — we'd love to discuss it further.