Apple's iPhone Fix Needs Fixing Itself

Last Updated Jul 26, 2010 1:20 PM EDT

On Friday, Apple (AAPL) kicked off its free iPhone 4 case program to answer criticism of how the company addressed widespread reports of problems with the iPhone 4 antenna design and, hopefully, end the spate of bad press.

Oops, not quite. The free case program is running into troubles of its own as some iPhone owners report problems with the app that's supposed to place the case order and some estimated arrival dates appear to stretch into late September.

Apple's attempts to deal with iPhone 4 antenna problems have been a PR fiasco. First the company tried valiantly to ignore the issue. Then it released a letter that claimed the only problem was a mistake in how Apple calculated signal strength bars.

However, the infamous reality distortion field of CEO Steve Jobs suffered a breakdown of its own, and the bad press mounted to the point that Consumer Reports withdrew its recommendation for the iPhone 4. That was a complaint that struck deeply into the heart of the broad consumer market that Apple has wanted to reach and expand its business beyond diehard loyalists.

Apple finally held a press conference -- one notable for the degree to which it continued to insist there was no real problem unique to the iPhone. I did notice that none of the videos the company showed of other phones caught in a "death grip" at that point or since have also shown a phone whose reception could be brought to its knees with a touch to a single point, as the following Consumer Reports video shows:

Still, complaining and excusing all the way, Jobs did announce Apple's solution, which was obvious from the start: give away cases so people can't accidentally bridge the gap between the two external metal strips in question. When the details came out, iPhone 4 owners learned that they would need to download a special app and that delivery would be three to five weeks.

However, things aren't working as smoothly as Apple would have hoped. Going through Apple's own discussion boards, I came across 8 different threads in which people complained about the free case app not working. Some got notifications that their iPhones weren't eligible for the program, even though they ran the app from an iPhone 4. As one customer noted, the app wasn't guaranteed to recognize the type of device and that a call to customer service was necessary. The customer service rep's answer was that Apple had to "get the information into 'the system.'"

One person complained of downloading the app to a computer and trying to sync to the iPhone 4, at which point the computer froze. Another found that the app refused to take the user's ID and password, even though the combination worked to download the app. A buyer who bought the iPhone 4 in the UK and who has a UK iTunes account received an email after using the case app that the order was cancelled because Apple doesn't ship internationally.

Shipping delays are another sore point. Of course, obtaining all those cases, process orders, and then getting shipments out simply takes time. This isn't pushing a software update wirelessly to the waiting throngs, so a three to five week delay doesn't seem unusual.

However, to people who paid a premium price for the iPhone 4 and have had problems for weeks, the lag is too long. Leander Kahney of Cult of Mac noted that he wasn't scheduled to get his case until Sept. 1, even though he ordered on July 23. A friend of a colleague reported getting an email that said his case would arrive Sept. 23, far later than anything else I've found online.

The ship date may in part be an attempt to set an expectation and then deliver faster. Some customers have said they received emails that their orders had shipped and would arrive within three days. However, it would be highly unlikely that Apple would ship nothing for weeks. Announced long delays may be a practical measure to deal with the fact that some customers will get cases immediately and others might have to wait an extended period as the company tries to bring in enough inventory.

Still, this has the potential to extend the antenna saga and further tax Apple's apparent weakness in disaster PR response. It's just what the company doesn't need, as additional iPhone 4 problems get more attention, such as frequently dropped Bluetooth connections and proximity sensor problems that Apple still hasn't resolved with a software fix. Assuming that it's just software. With the iPhone 4, apparently you have to ask that question now.

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Images: RGBStock.com users micromoth and sundstrom, site standard license.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.