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 field-test the phone under realistic conditions, according to the Journal piece. (Such fears may have been justified, in light of the April episode in which tech site Gizmodo obtained a misplaced prototype of the iPhone 4.) “The electronics giant kept such a shroud of secrecy over the iPhone 4’s development that the device didn’t get the kind of real-world testing that would have exposed such problems in phones by other manufacturers,” the Journal reporters wrote.

Apple has challenged the original Bloomberg article—Jobs called it “a total crock” at the Friday press conference. And my own sense is that the Bloomberg and Wall Street Journal allegations, as much as they resonate with my own qualms about Apple’s closed culture, are probably off base.

The crux of that the Apple-Bloomberg dispute, as Jonathan Gruber points out, is whether Apple’s antenna engineers had serious worries about the metal-rim design, and whether Jobs overruled them for aesthetic reasons. Personally, I’d be very surprised if these assertions were true. It’s just not in Apple’s DNA to come out with a product they know to contain a serious flaw, even for the sake of a beautiful design.

For an independent analyst’s take, I contacted Ross Rubin, executive director of industry analysis at NPD Group, a Port Washington, NY-based market research firm that tracks consumer attitudes about commercial technology and other fields. He emphasized Apple’s track record as a manufacturer. “Apple is a very engineering-driven company,” he said. “Steve Jobs characterized their approach—and there is a lot of evidence to support this characterization—as striving for both form and function.”

Indeed, Jobs pointed out during the Q&A portion of the Friday press conference that the decision to use an exterior antenna on the iPhone 4 was in large part a technical one, as it freed up space inside the device for a larger, longer-lasting battery. “We try to have our cake and eat it too, we try to have great design and great performance,” Jobs said, according to Engadget’s live-blog writeup of the Q&A portion of the event.

That leaves the testing question. Did Apple fail to send enough iPhone 4 prototypes out into the field, or did it put them inside camouflage shells (like the one allegedly found on the Gizmodo device) that unintentionally masked the reception problems? “There’s no evidence of that,” comments NPD’s Rubin. “Simply because one iPhone prototype was found with a shell around it does not mean that others were not tested without said shell.”

But there is one, less significant way in which Apple’s culture of secrecy may have proved a hindrance in this situation.It’s partly responsible for the current shortage of iPhone 4 cases. “As Jobs said regarding the iPhone 3GS, because they had not changed the fundamental industrial design from the 3G, when the 3GS launched where were a whole slew of cases available that were compatible with both the 3G and the 3GS,” says Rubin. “Because Apple does not share its upcoming hardware designs with other companies, there were fewer iPhone 4 cases available at launch than there might otherwise have been had they shown off the design.” As a result, more iPhones than usual are going around naked, and are thus vulnerable to the attenuation problem. Indeed, this is Jobs’ own theory about why users didn’t notice signal-strength dropoffs with previous models.

But Apple isn’t likely to start sharing its designs earlier with accessory-makers, so this criticism is probably moot, too. I think there’s room left for just one more question here, and it does relate back to the tension between form and function.

If a bumper is required to ensure that the iPhone 4 antenna can work unimpaired in areas with below-peak signal strength—as Apple seems to be acknowledging with its offer of a free case for all iPhone purchasers—can a bumperless iPhone be fairly characterized as a finished product? You can ask a similar question about the iPad, which must be placed in a rubber sheath or case before you can reliably grip it or safely take it anywhere. If there’s a weakness in Apple’s approach, it’s that it can fall so deeply in love with the pristine look of its products that it doesn’t seem to care whether customers have to retrofit them for the real world.

So, was Antennagate, like Watergate, a byproduct of paranoia and secrecy? I think it’s a stretch to say so. But not every new-product intuition will be right, even if you’re Jonathan Ives or Steve Jobs. (“We’re not perfect,” Jobs himself acknowledged on Friday.) So if Apple wants to avoid future backlashes, it might not hurt to do a focus group or two, or even consider beta-testing its products, before they go off into the wild.

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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