iPhone 4: Apple does the right thing, unconvincingly

Customers will get free bumpers or cases, but not an apology -- and Apple continues to miss the real issue

This morning, Apple CEO Jobs acknowledged there are issues with the iPhone 4's antenna and will give free cases (or bumpers, as users prefer to call them) to solve the "death grip" issue. Users who already bought bumpers from Apple will get a refund, and restocking fees are now waived for customers who return an undamaged iPhone 4.

That was the right thing to do, but doing the right thing sort of got lost in Jobs' 15 minutes of justifying the reception issues. Jobs said repeatedly that all phones have such problems, where touching a device in certain spots (which vary from device to device) causes a signal degradation that can lead to dropped calls. He showed a video of a BlackBerry 9700, an HTC Droid Eris, and a Samsung phone doing so.

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Then Jobs tried to suggest the iPhone 4 reception issues were caused by an aesthetic problem: The part of the iPhone 4 where gripping the case can lead to dropped calls happens to be where Apple added some horizontal lines into the case, which, according to Jobs, caused people to place their fingers there. "X marks the spot," he said in what seemed like an attempt to be humorous.

That unhappy coincidence may in fact be causing users to weaken the antenna's receptivity more than usual, but it neglects a key point: The phone's radio management software is supposed to account for such weakened reception and not drop the call. After all, as Jobs said repeatedly, all phones are subject to such reception interference -- so deal with it.

Jobs spent a lot of time detailing how much iPhone 4 customers loved their phones and how its return and complaint rates were lower than previous models. That's probably true -- and there's no question the iPhone 4 is a remarkable device in so many ways. Jobs also made gratuitous plugs of other Apple products, which seemed to trivialize the serious issue at hand. This was not the occasion to pitch products.

But I couldn't help feeling that Jobs missed the point. In the news conference, he said, "You know, we're not perfect. And phones aren't perfect either. But we want to make all of our users happy. And if you don't know that about Apple, you don't know Apple." I believe he meant it, but his strong focus on how much people like the iPhone 4 and how reception issues are a fact of life -- a fact of physics, he said -- made the positive action come across as defensive and reluctant, even if sincere.

I suggested earlier this week that Apple was wrong not to be upfront with its customers during in this drama. In the news conference, Jobs complained that only 22 days had passed since the iPhone 4 was released, and that his engineers had been working very hard to figure out the issue being reported in that time. It's great that Apple reacted quickly internally, but not great that the company went silent during that time. At the least, it could have ackowledged that there might be an issue and it was actively investigating. That would have relaxed customers and the media, who Jobs tried to blame for whipping up hysteria. It's easy to blame the media to deflect attention from your own mistakes.

The fact is, Apple's own silence let the darkest fears take flight. Jobs doesn't seem to get that; instead, he defended his decision to say nothing until he had a full answer: "The fact we didn't say anything after a week, it's because we didn't know enough. And it's taken us a while to get the data. If we'd have done this a week and a half ago, we wouldn't have had half the data that we shared with you today." I'm sorry, but Apple could -- and should -- have kept us informed along the way.

But the best example of Apple, or at least Jobs, not getting the point of all the hysteria over the iPhone 4 was in the Q&A. When asked if Apple owed users an apology, Jobs didn't say yes. Instead, he talked about doing well for customers and investors. He should have said yes. It doesn't matter that the iPhone 4 issue appears solvable or that the underlying issue is one that can affect any phone.

Apple claims to be all about its customers and doing great things. Doing great engineering and design isn't sufficient to live up to those goals. Treating customers with respect and honesty and directness -- acting on the alleged relationship with them -- is part of the process, too. That's where Apple continues to fall short.

This article, "iPhone 4: Apple does the right thing, unconvincingly," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Gruman et al.'s Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile computing at InfoWorld.com.

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