Apple shows off $100 million antenna design and test labs

Following their iPhone 4 press conference last Friday, Apple showed for the first time their massive $100 dollar antenna design and test labs both on the web at apple.com, and to select members of the media. The images look like something out of science fiction, of Charles Xavier's Cerebro and the StarGate recreated in blue foam. There are 4 facilities with 17 antenna characterization (anechoic) chambers put together to test everything from 2G and 3G cell networks to Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS.

Apple's site says:

Apple engineers tested iPhone 4 in a variety of scenarios, environments, and conditions in order to gauge performance. They spent thousands of hours in cities in the U.S. and throughout the world testing iPhone 4 call quality, dropped-call performance, call origination and termination, and in-service time. They tested iPhone 4 while stationary, at high and low speeds, and in urban, dense urban, and highway environments. In low-coverage areas and good-coverage areas, during peak and off-peak hours — iPhone 4 was field-tested in nearly every possible coverage scenario across different vendor and carrier equipment all over the world.

Josh Topolsky of Engadget says:

And we get it -- there have been people out there suggesting that Apple simply didn't test their phone before letting it out into the market. Or that they were so bone-headed that they only tested it in those special cases made for bringing the phone to bars, so of course they didn't see the antenna issue. But let's be honest -- this is a multi-billion dollar company that's been making wireless devices for a long, long time. This isn't their first phone, it's their fourth, and though there have been reception issues with the previous models, nothing suggests that Apple isn't doing its due diligence on these phones. The truth is, we didn't need the tour to understand that, but it's possible some people do.

John Paczkowski of Digital Daily says:

[Ruben Caballero, a Senior Director of Engineering responsible for antenna design] said the iPhone 4 spent 2 years in those labs before it was released to the public. 2 years. The company tested the hell out of the device and any suggestion that it didn’t is ludicrous. Apple was clearly well aware that the iPhone 4 can suffer some signal degradation when held a certain way, but in its eyes that’s the original sin with which ALL cell phones are born. Let he who is without sin cast the first phone, right?

MG Siegler of TechCrunch says:

No matter what your take is on the iPhone 4 antenna — my take is here: it’s real, but not a big deal — there is no question that Apple spends a huge amount of time and money testing these devices. And the fact that the thing people will care most about in this whole 1,200-word post is the passing mention that the iPhone 5 and iPhone 6 may have been in one of these rooms, says just about all you need to say about the state of the iPhone.

So our take away is this: Apple has put hundreds of millions of dollars and years of effort into building, staffing, and using a state of the art antenna reception facility. They want to create the best phones in the world, not just the best digital devices. Of course they knew there was a single death-touch point of attenuation on iPhone 4 but decided the benefits of overall better reception, longer battery life, and innovating in the antenna space (which is always a step-forward, step-back game) was worth the trade-off. But they utterly failed to properly prepare users and especially the media for the implications of that trade-off, and then reacted poorly when that lack of prep-time came back to bite them. (Including trying to switch the discussion from specific death-touch to industry-wide death-grip).

The confluence of that technological trade-off, failure to set expectations, and the media frenzy that's followed has created a huge rift in popular perception probably best exemplified by Consumer Reports -- the crux upon which a lot of "antennagate" hinges -- not recommending iPhone 4 despite rating it the best smartphone on the planet.

It would almost be comedic if it wasn't so absurd.