iPhone 4 death-touch risks known for 1 to 2 years?

As part of the fallout from Mark Papermaster's exit from Apple, a couple of reports have surfaced indicating Apple knew about the potential for iPhone 4 antenna "death-touch" (detuning at the spot on the lower left side) for 1 to 2 years prior to launch.

The Wall Street Journal claims one year:

It was Mr. Jobs, rather than Mr. Papermaster, who decided to move forward with the development of the phone even though the company was aware of the risks of the antenna design as much as a year ago, according to people familiar with the matter.

Daring Fireball says two year:

One last tidbit from an informed source: the bug on the “touching it wrong” signal loss issue was filed two years ago. This is not a problem they didn’t catch, or caught too late. So, on the one hand, clearly the fundamental antenna design predated Papermaster’s time at the company. But on the other hand, there was plenty of time to find a solution to the problem. I.e., it’s not that Apple should not have used an external antenna. It’s that it should have been even better.

And again it's worth pointing out that the issue as it currently stands is part real problem for people in low signal areas who do touch the phone on the left, part media feeding frenzy, and part Apple mishandling the introduction and subsequent media frenzy.

If Steve Jobs, as part of the WWDC 2010 iPhone 4 introduction, had explained the new iPhone 4 antenna as providing better reception in most cases, allowing for a bigger, longer-lasting battery, and adding to the structural support of the phone -- with the trade-off being that spot of detuning -- information like the above probably wouldn't have even made it to post.

Now we're getting free bumpers. (Though Google still hasn't offere me a free sun shade for my daylight impaired Nexus One AMOLED display...)

[Wall Street Journal, Daring Fireball]

Rene Ritchie

Editor-in-Chief of iMore, co-host of Iterate, Debug, ZEN and TECH, MacBreak Weekly. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter, App.net, Google+.

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There are 23 comments. Add yours.

schmooie says:

So what if they knew? There's never such a thing as bad publicity. Look at Apple now! People still want the new iPhone, even knowing that it has an obvious design flaw! Well done, Steve. Well done. :-/

CJ says:

This isn't likely to change the majority of people's minds about future purchases.

  1. Apple loyalist would buy poop on a cracker if it were Apple branded.
  2. Android loyalist would strap a bomb to themselves and detonate it before buying an Apple product.
  3. The rest of the world is too caught up in __________ to even care.
mcikato says:

"Now we’re getting free bumpers. (Though HTC still hasn’t offered me a free sun shade for my daylight impaired Nexus One AMOLED display…)"
With all due respect, your above comparisson is absolutely out of focus... On the one hand, you knew that the AMOLED display in the NEXUS would have the sun problem, because ALL AMOLED screens have it... before buying it, you know such a problem, which actually is not a problem, it is just a screen characteristic, specification... if you would care about such characteristic, you would have bough another phone with a different type of screen....
On the other hand, the antenna in Iphone 4, is a problem... overated? Yes, but a problem that you didn't know when buying the phone...

cardfan says:

We still speculating on whether apple knew about this issue? Of course they did and long ago. Design won out. Form over function.
I do disagree that this would be no problem had Jobs explained the issue at WWDC. I can't imagine how you explain that away in good form during a presentation. IMO, rather than brag on brilliant antenna design instead they shouldn't have mentioned the antenna at all. Specifically mentioning detuning at wwdc would have magnified the problem.
I think the issue was a no win for em. It's simply too easy to notice or replicate. They'll ride this out with only a few bumps, but the pressure is on to address it in the iphone 5 because the focus will be there.

BrianTufo says:

Yes I'm sure Apple knowingly put these phones out fully knowing they had issues. I'm sure they wanted nothing more then to get slammed by the media and have to give away free bumpers and cases. I'm sure they wanted people to return their devices. So to summarize I'm sure Steve Jobs wanted to tarnish his company and his profit making machine on purpose just to have the little black lines on the aluminum sides of the iPhone 4. Some of these stories are absolutely absurd!

Dexter says:

cardfan is right, Apple should have never mentioned the antenna in the first place. It made people hypersensitive about where the antenna is when no one really knows where antennas are on any given phone. They essentially dug their own grave by toting the superiority of the geniusly engineered antenna.

Ronn says:

Re: cj's comment
This isn’t likely to change the majority of people’s minds about future purchases.
Apple loyalist would buy poop on a cracker if it were Apple branded.
I would! But I'm totally satisfied with the iPhone 4. ItS also nice to be envy'd by others. (non iphone4 carriers)

Bill says:

"Now we’re getting free bumpers. (Though HTC still hasn’t offered me a free sun shade for my daylight impaired Nexus One AMOLED display…)"
That was as pathetic as apple posting the videos of the competitors phones cuttinmg out. Once again, its the Rene Ritchie SPIN show.

Tone says:

If this is true it's f*ck up that they would do people like this, now that said I have had my ip4 since the 1st wk and I have no problems with mine. But for the people that did get 1 with the problems apple should do more than just free bumpers like letting u upgrade ur ip4 too a ph5 when it's comes out with no fees.

Tom Stephens says:

It's ludicrous to suggest any CEO would launch a new product, proclaim its capabilities and then add a caveat about its shortcomings. Launches don't work that way no matter what company you are discussing. Apple made a trade-off with respect to the antenna and clearly thought the advantages outweighed the disadvantages -- arguably true for the vast majority of users. What would have mitigated the situation was a prompt Apple Support posting, as soon as the story gained traction, explaining a deliberate trade-off was made to provide most customers with a better experience.

Wizzy says:

I just got my iphone 4, the build week is 31, and I definitely have issues with the antenna. It's not just touching "the spot", it's holding it without a case, period. Meanwhile, I'm waiting another month for my free case while I get dropped internet in any low-medium reception areas. I never had ANY problems whatsoever with my 3GS. It's such a great looking phone without the case, I almost hate to cover it up despite the improved reception.

Shadow says:

I think gizmodo forced apple to release the iPhone 4 early. I bet they had planned on releasing the 3GS2 before that which already had white ready for shipping.

AlexLovesStaudts says:

I've always thought that the death-grip is not because Apple didn't know, but because of the arrogance of "We know better than anyone else", also shown by the quick Steve Jobs response of "Just don't hold it that way". I'm sure he said the same thing 1000x before to everybody warning him. I wouldn't be surprised if Mr. Papermaster got fired for saying "I told you so".

OrionAntares#CB says:

My only question would be, in your closing section are you trying to convince the people reading this post that everything is ok or are you trying to re-assure yourself?
Even if you run with the theory that this is some kind of super innovative trade-off (it's not btw), if they knew about this problem in testing it wouldn't have been difficult for them to make a slight alteration in the design so that that metal band was covered by a clear outer casing that would have had no measurable real-world effect on the phone's signal strength. They went with aesthetics over function and hoped no one would notice.

icebike says:

Clear casing over antenna would have worked perfectly and solved a lot of problems.
But pretty boy Ive has more pull than engineers. He's the one that should have been shown the door.
Conversation went something like this:
Papermaster: See. I told you so.
Jobs: Your fired!

websyndicate says:

this is being blown way out of the water I think. Over hype from media but hey it gets headlines, traffic and comments which equals ad impressions so why not right.
Poor Journalism

Chris says:

This seems somewhat hypocritical in light of the fact that Apple's claiming the antenna problem is "industry wide", presumably one of "the small details" the CEO should have been on top of.

Pimp Lucious says:

Once again TiPB can't help to defend Apple while criticizing the competition in some lame need to constantly cheer all things Cupertino. Had absolutely nothing to to with Android. Seriously Rene get off Steve's D and just try reporting the news for a change.

brian1269 says:

If Apple knew about the design flaw, knew what did, then that is even worse. Releasing a product with such an obvious flaw that anyone with a digit can reproduce? Shameful.

iBamse says:

Of course they knew about it. If nothing else, Jobs' answer ("Hold differently.") shows just that. He knew very well about it. It also tells us he knew exactly how minor the issue really is - you just need to slightly rearrange your grip to work around it.
The availability of the bumpers also show exactly how minor they thought this issue would be. They genuinely thought that those who could not find peace in holding the phone differently would happily buy themselves a bumper instead.
Having owned the iPhone 4 for a while, I entirely agree with mr Jobs on this one.
Hold differently.

Sean Peters says:

the issue as it currently stands is part real problem for people in low signal areas who do touch the phone on the left

I love these constant attempts to downplay the problem - "for those who do touch the phone on the left"... yeah, like that tiny minority of the population that's right handed, who therefore want to dial the phone with their right hand, so they... do touch it on the left. Trying to dial this thing with your right hand without touching the left side of the phone is, to say the least, difficult.
Yes, there's some element of media feeding frenzy here - it's not like the phone is unusable, at least for most people. But of the three factors you mention, two of them (the "you can't touch it on the left" factor, and the fumbled public response)... well, the blame is on Apple there.

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Ed says:

Apple branded fool, yes
totally satisfied iphone 4 customer, yes
antenna/reception problems, none
Get a grip everyone and move to a better signal area...