Was ‘Antennagate’ a Side Effect of Apple’s Secrecy Culture?

Repeat after me: rubber baby iPhone bumpers, rubber baby iPhone bumpers. That’s more or less the mantra that emerged from Apple’s “Antennagate” press conference in Cupertino, CA, on Friday, called to address consumers’ and reporters’ (and Senators‘!) concerns about reception problems with the iPhone 4.

CEO Steve Jobs shared data confirming that the iPhone 4—and quite a few other smartphones to boot—have a harder time picking up cellular signals when they’re wrapped in a human hand. (Despite any luck you may have had in the past getting a better TV picture by grasping the rabbit ears, people are basically big bags of saltwater, and don’t make very good radio antennas.) To resolve the issue, Jobs offered a free iPhone case, or bumper, to everyone who buys an iPhone 4 between now and September 30. IPhone 4 owners who already bought Apple cases will be reimbursed. People who feel inconsolably dissatisfied with their signal-impaired iPhones are free to bring them back for a refund.

All of which seems likely to put an end to Antennagate (Jobs used the overheated term himself). The 3 million iPhone 4 owners—only 0.55 percent of whom have complained to Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL), according to Jobs—will go back to their regularly scheduled lives this week, and the technology press and late-night comedians will find something else to chew over. Which is fine, since the iPhone’s shortcomings as an actual phone have been evident for three years now. To my mind, the only piece of real news about the iPhone 4 was that users can make signal bars evaporate simply by touching the device in a specific place, whereas before they had to step into one of the (seemingly ubiquitous) AT&T dead zones.

Before I move on to other subjects myself, however, I thought I’d take a closer look at the one question that does seem trenchant.That is whether the mini-crisis around the iPhone 4 antenna can be traced in any significant way to Apple’s culture of secrecy. If so, there might be some meaning in the episode for the company and its customers, beyond the shallow questions about whether Apple played by the correct PR rulebook in its response to the antenna issue.

Back in January, a few weeks before Jobs unveiled the iPad, I wrote a column called “The Apple Paradox.” In it, I questioned how a company with such a closed and secretive style of innovation can keep churning out products that are beloved by people in the creative industries, where so much depends on openness and sharing. The piece generated a huge amount of feedback—more than any Xconomy column I’ve ever written—and the gist from commentators seemed to be: “Apple just makes great products, and people don’t care how they get built.”

That’s a fine answer, as long as the method keeps working. As I wrote in the January column: “It’s conceivable, though it’s not very palatable to the ‘open culture’ crowd, that a closed creative process, driven by a guiding genius like Jobs, is the only way to build products as coherent and compelling as the iPhone.”

The question is whether, in the case of the iPhone 4, Apple’s closed innovation style backfired on the company, resulting in the release of a form-over-function product whose performance had not been adequately tested outside the controlled conditions of Apple’s Cupertino campus.

That’s certainly the impression conveyed by a July 15 article from Bloomberg and a similar July 16 piece in the Wall Street Journal. Citing sources “familiar with the matter,” both the Bloomberg article and the Journal article assert that Apple knew that the iPhone 4’s unconventional design, in which the metal rim functions as a cellular, GPS, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth antenna, might suffer reception problems. But Jobs “liked the design so much” that the company pressed ahead with its development, the Journal article said. Then, fearing premature exposure of the design, the company failed to … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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