One of the greatest tricks Apple pulled off at the iPhone 4 press conference was changing the dialog from death-touch -- a single point of antenna trouble on iPhone 4 -- to death-grip -- a device-wide point of antenna trouble faced by the entire industry.
Apple for their part did cop to making iPhone 4's point of attenuation very external and incredibly visible. Steve Jobs called it "x-marks the spot", but then Apple very quickly moved on from this death-touch to a wider death-grip and demonstrated it on handsets from RIM's BlackBerry to HTC's Droid to Samsung's Windows Mobile.
I initially thought this was a mistake on Apple's part -- that they were spending too much time deflecting onto the competition. Turns out I underestimated Apple, but not as badly as the competition. What Apple very neatly managed to do there was conflate their own widely reported iPhone 4 death-touch into the very real but widely under-reported death-grip phenomena that does indeed affect the entire industry.
What's more, by those very competitors responding that the death-grip either didn't affect their devices, was minimal at best, or wouldn't affect future devices, they cinched it for Apple. They became part of the problem. Why?
Because their devices absolutely suffer from the death grip. Instead of pointing out that yes, Apple was correct, the death-grip was an industry-wide problem but the death-touch was thus far unique to Apple, RIM BlackBerry, Samsung, and Nokia denied the death-grip, thus ensuring everyone with the issue -- or just an itch for attenuation attention -- would fire up YouTube and make a video clearly discrediting their statements.
HTC for their part just said they didn't have many reports of the problem. However, as David Chartier points out, HTC effectively white-labels their phones to Verizon and they didn't make it clear whether the number of complaints they reported included Verizon numbers. This is similar to Apple citing AT&T return numbers for iPhone 4, not gross Apple return numbers. It's what brought about the saying "lies, damn lies, and statistics".
My original take on Apple's press conference was that Steve Jobs should have just stressed that making the iPhone 4 antenna the way they did was a trade-off, better battery life and stronger signal in many cases in exchange for that single point of problem -- the lower left hand corner death-touch. Andy Ihnatko made the same point, if more eloquently. Arguably a modern smartphone has any number of tradeoffs -- AMOLED screens offer better color and blacks that utterly fail in direct sunlight. (Free sun-screens anyone?)
I still think Apple should have been crystal clear about that trade-off, but it's looking increasingly like they didn't have to. In their rush to get comments out in front of the media RIM, Samsung, Nokia, et al have let the conversation get changed from death-touch to death-grip, and they've let videos on their own handsets propagate across the web. One look at BlackBerry on Boy Genius, Nokia on Electronista, Samsung on InformationWeek, HTC on Engadget, many others via Daring Fireball, and even manufactures' own warnings against touching their antennas in their own manuals via 1FPS shows how they've become part of a story that last week was all about Apple.
Sure a few sites like Ars Technica and When Will Apple? will raise a fuss over it, but it's done. Competitors dove headlong into it. And since Apple has now effectively priced the death-touch problem as one free case per phone, all that remains to be seen is if competitor's denials + customers videos = free cases for other phones too.
So I underestimated Apple but they didn't underestimate their competition.
Note: this editorial is based on a Twitter conversation with Seth Weintraub from 9to5Mac who is absolutely right, one day college courses will be taught on these PR tactics. Check out his article on Fortune.
Update 1: Dilbert's Scott Adams comes to the same conclusion, which he calls the "high ground maneuver", and wonders if Jobs has had hypnotist training.
Update 2: I said above that while many smartphones have the death-grip, only the iPhone has the death-touch. Daring Fireball links to a YouTube video showing the Samsung Galaxy S having, if not the death-touch, then at least the death-finger. Again, from now on no smartphone is safe.