iPhone Problems: Apple Brings Back Its Classic Reality Distortion Field [Update]

Last Updated Jul 2, 2010 12:53 PM EDT

Mistakes are never fun to clean up, but major companies do when push comes to shove. However, Apple (AAPL) has a different approach to the reception issues with its new iPhone 4 -- it says they don't exist. Apple's continuing to distort the reality of the iPhone's problems, and its attempts to hide from the issue will only hurt it in the long run.

In what seems like an addendum to George Orwell's novel 1984, Apple today released a letter that essentially says that there are no problems with actual iPhone 4 reception, only with the reception bar display, and that everyone who thinks the phone is working badly must be mistaken:

The iPhone 4 has been the most successful product launch in Apple's history. It has been judged by reviewers around the world to be the best smartphone ever, and users have told us that they love it. So we were surprised when we read reports of reception problems, and we immediately began investigating them. Here is what we have learned.To start with, gripping almost any mobile phone in certain ways will reduce its reception by 1 or more bars. This is true of iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, as well as many Droid, Nokia and RIM phones. But some users have reported that iPhone 4 can drop 4 or 5 bars when tightly held in a way which covers the black strip in the lower left corner of the metal band. This is a far bigger drop than normal, and as a result some have accused the iPhone 4 of having a faulty antenna design.

At the same time, we continue to read articles and receive hundreds of emails from users saying that iPhone 4 reception is better than the iPhone 3GS. They are delighted. This matches our own experience and testing. What can explain all of this?

We have discovered the cause of this dramatic drop in bars, and it is both simple and surprising.

Upon investigation, we were stunned to find that the formula we use to calculate how many bars of signal strength to display is totally wrong. Our formula, in many instances, mistakenly displays 2 more bars than it should for a given signal strength. For example, we sometimes display 4 bars when we should be displaying as few as 2 bars. Users observing a drop of several bars when they grip their iPhone in a certain way are most likely in an area with very weak signal strength, but they don't know it because we are erroneously displaying 4 or 5 bars. Their big drop in bars is because their high bars were never real in the first place.

To fix this, we are adopting AT&T's recently recommended formula for calculating how many bars to display for a given signal strength. The real signal strength remains the same, but the iPhone's bars will report it far more accurately, providing users a much better indication of the reception they will get in a given area. We are also making bars 1, 2 and 3 a bit taller so they will be easier to see.

We will issue a free software update within a few weeks that incorporates the corrected formula. Since this mistake has been present since the original iPhone, this software update will also be available for the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 3G.

We have gone back to our labs and retested everything, and the results are the same-- the iPhone 4's wireless performance is the best we have ever shipped. For the vast majority of users who have not been troubled by this issue, this software update will only make your bars more accurate. For those who have had concerns, we apologize for any anxiety we may have caused.

Remember, that letter comes filtered through the not-yet-patented i1984 Reality Distortion Field. I've applied some corrective filtering for the following translation:
We sold a lot of phones, and, immediately, people reported reception problems. Did you know that if you hold any cellphone, it will lose at least a bar of reception? What? How can your phone show full bars even when you're holding it? You probably had the reception turned up to 11. Look! It's Haley's Comet! Did you know we didn't bother to use the right bar formula, even with our advanced quality control systems that allowed yellow marks on screen and swapped volume keys? Yeah, we often display two more bars of signal strength than you actually get. That means you benefit in two ways. One is that you're lucky to make any calls at all. Two, when you hold it the right way and you're in a low signal area, suddenly it doesn't display the wrong number of bars, but the right number of bars, and your reception really is that bad. Congratulations! You are part of the solution, not the problem. Unfortunately, we're going to correct this eventually, so you may be more disappointed than usual looking at the signal strength. (Did we say that AT&T (T) is our carrier partner? Not that we'd blame those slackers.)

We've actually tested everything this time and -- guess what? -- we get the same best wireless performance of any iPhone 4 we've shipped. If you're one of the people we've screwed, so sorry. But, no, you aren't getting a free $29 cheap plastic bumper.

Apple has rightly taken a public pounding. When you charge a premium price, you should deliver a premium product that doesn't require people to relearn how they do such basic things as hold a phone. The company is clearly on the defensive with this letter and yesterday's second-hand denial of only one of the email exchanges that CEO Steve Jobs had with a customer over the iPhone 4 problems. But unless Apple can learn to deal with its shortcomings and address angry customers, it will end up on the defensive for a long time.

[Update: I had unfortunately forgotten to add this the other day, but Boy Genius Report stands by its quote of Jobs with the caveat that it incorrectly identified who wrote the last of the exchange. However, it denies that the exchange itself is faked, and Apple still has not directly come out to claim this. Given Apple's willingness to push for criminal prosecution of Gizmodo over the iPhone 4 prototype event and sue at least one blogger in the past, I would think that the company would have taken a more stringent stand and stronger action had the entire exchange really been a work of fiction.]

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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.