Mind the Gap on iPhone 4

They're calling it "Antennagate." Perhaps you've heard of it.

Apple's iPhone thrust smartphones out of the primordial soup of questionable form and debatable function in which they had long lingered and into the public consciousness. Once solely the semi-functional tool of the beleaguered businessman, the smartphone—and more to the point, the iPhone or something like it—became the latest in a long line of must-haves for even the most modestly gadget-prone individual.

By simplifying nearly everything about the smartphone experience while simultaneously opening their product to outside development and locking down that same development into only styles which help unify their vision, Apple positioned themselves via the iPhone as frontrunners in next-gen telecommunications. Say what you like about Apple, but they know how to build a solid, appealing piece of hardware.

Or at least they did until the iPhone 4.

Apple's first three iPhone iterations were practically indistinguishable to the untrained user. Though each revision has seen at least incremental upgrades, Apple would not significantly change the device's form factor until June's iPhone 4 release. But in so changing, Apple perhaps dreamed too big.

The iPhone has long been plagued with connectivity issues in high-density population areas, many of which can be traced back to AT&T's consistently overcrowded network. Faced with an exclusivity agreement reportedly too annoying to break, Apple attempted to make the best of the situation by wrapping the iPhone 4's antenna all the way around the device, giving the antenna a strong visual presence and saying through its design, "Hey, we're doing everything we can! Sorry, Manhattan!"

Unfortunately, Apple's hardware engineers were apparently asleep the day their college instructors went over the effects of direct human contact with antennas. Soon after the iPhone 4's release, reports came pouring into tech news sources of terminal, easily replicable signal attenuation issues, many of which were suspected to be caused by the positioning of a critical gap in the antenna near an area on the phone which is commonly touched during calls.

That's bad, sure, but a single hardware flub, no matter the potential percentage of users affected, hardly deserves its own suffix. The -gate in Antennagate began to find life shortly after the first reports emerged, when Apple CEO Steve Jobs had a "let them eat cake" moment and told a few early adopters that the "facts were different" from what they were experiencing, and that if they wanted clear reception, they should "just avoid holding it in that way."

More hits followed. Apple first blamed signal loss on an improperly calibrated signal bar algorithm (fixed, but later recanted as a main cause) and the same AT&T-related issues encountered by previous iPhones, then later downplayed the number of affected users (by spinning numbers toward users who actually reported the problem) before finally offering a stopgap case-giveaway solution on July 16—nearly a month after the issue was first publicly discussed, and according to a Wall Street Journal report nearly a year after Apple engineers were first aware of the problem.

There lies the evolution of "Apple's minor antenna problem" into a full-blown Antennagate. The antenna issue was a fumble, one easily recoverable given Apple users' brand loyalty and Apple's propensity for clever self-promotion. (I hear John Hodgman is available.) But for Apple, a month-long series of half-baked feints in an attempt to put off a "bumper" giveaway (even a $175 million "bumper" giveaway) that we all knew was going to happen anyway to solve a problem that might have been known about a year ago is so far beyond unreasonable behavior that it easily surpasses my limited ability to construct a sports metaphor about it.

Antennagate itself is almost over. Apple will ship its bumpers, current owners will be sated, and a few months down the road (perhaps a week or so after Apple misses the next speculative "iPhone on Verizon" deadline), Apple will quietly roll out an iPhone 4.5, equivalent in all ways save the location of one flawed gap.

In the meantime, Apple remains a nigh-invulnerable consumer technology powerhouse—which is all the more reason to hear about its mistakes. Over the coming weeks, try to ignore the inevitable pro-Apple counter-backlash and remember that Apple is a company with no small amount of influence among its peers. Just as Apple's products often find themselves the roadmaps other companies follow, Apple's mistakes show others what kind of insane stunts their customers will bear.

Because when it comes down to it, when industry leaders decide that the best course of action is to blame their customers for a mistake of their own making, those leaders need to feel every bit of the heat their actions engender before they make a few isolated incidents into a way of life. Otherwise, the industry itself risks losing brands—and more importantly, the ideas that came with them.

After all, guys like me and rags like Consumer Reports won't sink the iPhone, but internal blunders might. Remember the N-Gage, Nokia's phone/media player/gaming console from 2003? Remember sidetalking, the ridiculous way that Nokia expected you to use the thing?

You don't? Exactly.