61 Comments

Summary:

After a series of PR bungles, consumers and the press continue to beat up Apple on the iPhone 4 antenna issue causing signal problems. There’s only one way Apple is likely to end the negative press on this problem: free bumpers for iPhone 4 customers.

Apple’s iPhone 4 has the highest resolution for a smartphone and offers an easy method for wireless video calling, but it’s failing for some in a basic phone function — voice calling. The situation is causing outrage around the web and on Twitter: depending on who you ask, the innovative stainless-steel frame that doubles as an antenna is either the best or the worst feature. Apple claims the antenna offers the best reception ever, yet Consumer Reports testing confirms what many consumers are finding out firsthand: touching two specific parts of the frame simultaneously causes signal degradation.

Surprisingly, Apple isn’t handling this public relations challenge very well. Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, reportedly emailed a complaining customer saying, “Just avoid holding it that way.” And just prior to a holiday weekend — possibly in an attempt to bury attention — the company issued a press release pushing much of the blame on U.S. carrier partner AT&T (t). Apple claims that all iPhones have been incorrectly overstating signal strength and that a software fix will address the problem soon. Clearly, the software update will fix the visual problem, but it’s highly unlikely that the antenna problem will be affected.

At this point, the negative press shows no signs of abating over the iPhone 4 antenna issue and, for that reason, the fastest and simplest solution should be considered — Apple should simply offer a free bumper to every iPhone 4 customer. While Apple would lose out on the $29 sales of such items — and the high profit margin they likely involve — the company could negate the bad press and make things right with its customers. And the fact that Apple never made iPhone cases or bumpers before isn’t lost on me. I have to wonder when Apple actually realized the potential antenna issue.

Regardless of when the problem was determined, the peace offering of a bumper is far less damaging in the long term and is a better way to handle the situation than allegedly deleting mentions of the Consumer Reports findings in Apple support discussions or recalling the phone as some have suggested. For a company that’s built upon brand loyalty, Apple simply can’t afford to not offer free iPhone 4 bumpers.

Related content on GigaOM Pro (subscription required):

Is an iPhone- and Android-Only World the Best We Can Do?

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  1. Connor Turnbull Tuesday, July 13, 2010

    Exactly, offering complimentary bumpers is $29 loss per customer. Recalling all iPhone 4s is a $199-$699 (contract price in the US to pay as you go in the UK) loss per customer. I think Apple may actually end up putting bumpers in the box with shipping.

  2. Why do the media keep suggesting recalls and free bumpers like they are a forgone conclusion? It’s not like consumers aren’t still gobbling up the iPhone like crazy. I asked a tech at the Apple store if they’ve gotten a lot of returns or phones brought in and he said no. They are making money hand over fist on iPhones and bumpers regardless of this problem.

    This is purely a PR issue; Apple will only continue to profit by not doing a thing to correct this problem – other solutions would simply cost $. And Apple are PR kings why should they be worried?

    1. PR costs money too. At a certain point pr cost > cost of bumper and recall. More importantly, not admitting fault and not taking steps to fix the problem will hurt apple’s god-like reputation. That money cannot buy and it only takes one tiny mitake to destroy years of trust and loyalty which apple (toyota) has built up.

    2. @John
      I suppose you get to eat those words on Friday. Watch carefully as Apple walks back that non-sense statement of “Just return the phone for a full refund.” This is an ethical issue right now. And now that Senior Senator D-NY Chuck E. Chumer is involved, anything Apple says can and will be used against them in a Court of Law. What does Apple know and when did they know about it. Re: virtually no returns to date.. Why would you return a product that’s about to yield a golden egg i.e.. Bumper case or iTune gift card? If I was a fan boy, I’d definitely buy myself into a free bumper or iTunes gift card too.

  3. Tuesday links: intrinsic motivation Abnormal Returns Tuesday, July 13, 2010

    [...] No one looks good in the Consumer Reports-Apple (AAPL) fiasco.  (Apple 2.0 also SAI, GigaOM) [...]

  4. Apple may end up doing that, but the problem does not end there.

    Do Apple/Jobs think that they are too big to make any mistakes? There is no doubt that Apple’s reputation will take a serious beating due to this incidence. This was the last thing Apple wanted now as this gives additional momentum to Android.

    Google would be thanking Apple for launching the iPhone 4 :)

    From being an Apple fan, I am now completely turned off by Apple’s policies and the way it handles its customers. I am glad that I did not buy the iPad – would rather hold on for an Android one :)

    1. Trouble is, if one is to believe Consumer Reports the iPhone 4 has better reception and voice quality than many Android phones — and nobody is screaming for them to be recalled due to their inferior performance.

      So, by all means, wait for your as of yet vaporware Android tablet, but when you get it, don’t expect it to be better than the iPad — chances are it won’t be.

  5. I’ve heard (disclaimer: these are rumors) that the Apple Bumper cases only cost $0.75 to manufacture.

    I love my iPhone 4 – and haven’t had much in the way of signal loss due to living in a strong AT&T coverage area – but I still have a bumper… I’m scared to death of it falling out of my hands.

  6. Seems to me the best way to fix this is a free bumper for anyone having problems and future phones should have some sort of enamel coating on the outer steel band to fix the problem on new production phones.

    From what I have heard even a piece of scotch tape will fix this issue so an enamel coating should do the trick just as well and wouldn’t really even change the look of the phone at all.

  7. Bumpers probably cost a $1 or $2 to make. The markup is sky high. So not a $29 loss. Although it is a loss in the sense they won’t be selling any if they give one free to every customers. Then again those things probably wear out or get all grimey and giving one free to every customer might just whet their appetite for a future purchase down the road and actually make Apple more money in the long run.

    Consumer Reports though say Apple should fix it permanently and they carry alot of weight.

    Not sure a free bumper case will be enough even though I think the problem is a bit overblown.

    HOw is the company that prides itself on design going to tell consumers they need to put a plastic bumper on its product in order to avoid problems?

  8. Michael Chaney Tuesday, July 13, 2010

    Here’s the big problem for Apple with handing out free bumper cases…..it admits guilt. With a pending class-action lawsuit on the way, any move by apple that demonstrates this is a hardware problem that can’t be fixed by software, and one that is unique to the iPhone 4 (such as touching the metal bits) will all but guarantee them a guilty verdict in court.

    Apple will have to keep waiving the shiny keys and claim they are fixing receptions “problems” whether really related to the antenna issue or not. They will also have to keep up the facade that the hand interference problem is the same interference experienced by all internal antennas, even though there’s a mountain of evidence to the contrary.

    1. I tend to agree in HL. They are in deep sht and I can hear huge fans powering up.

  9. I don’t want to be forced to use some case. Fix the problem and recall if needed.

  10. Rev. B ASAP, please.

  11. When the Wii came out and all those numbnuts were slinging their Wii-motes into their HDTVs, Nintendo offered up a free augmentation kit to help. That little piece of silicone is probably the best non-issue resolver in the history of consumer electronics.

  12. REQUEST: If you own Apple stock, please disclose that when making a comment on this post.

    Thank you.

    ( I own no Apple stock )

    1. Needless to say, I feel like a moron for not buying Apple. And, I do feel the need for a public disclosure of my stupidity ;). Any one else?

  13. This was exactly the point I made on my own blog a while ago – even used the Nintendo example.

    The thing is, if the iPhone came out in 2003 you’d have prolly got the bumper in your box.
    Instead, compare that with today and you get the bare minimum now – quite symptomatic of a company that has moved past it’s customer focused ideal and squarely in the greedy and arrogant camp.

    It’s a shame and something I hope apple snap out of before they burn thru their goodwill and return to the bad old days products out of touch with their customers.

  14. I have a bumper and it did not make a bit of difference in helping the “death grip” signal problem. But I never hold it that way anyway, so…who cares.

    My biggest problem with iPhone 4 are dropped calls and the sensor not shutting functions while I’m making a call, so I’m muting people, pressing the keyboard and making beeping noises.

    This never happened to me before with the 3GS.

    Did Apple actually field test these things extensively?

    Makes me wonder.

    1. No Paul, Gizmodo did it for them.

  15. Howie Isaacks Tuesday, July 13, 2010

    You got the first part right… Forget the recall. After that, you’re totally wrong. The vast majority of people who have bought iPhone 4 have not had problems, so why should Apple give out free cases, or recall the product? It’s disappointing that you’ve fallen into this pit of B.S.. I expect more from the people who run a website called The Apple Blog!

    1. Life lesson number one, Howie. You are not the world.

  16. The reason Apple cannot provide a free bumper case is that they would be sued by the United States Government (and EU for sure as well) on antitrust grounds for bundling the bumper case and impeding “competition” in the “market for iPhone cases”.

    Don’t believe me? Microsoft was sued for including IE on Windows…

  17. if that was a different company, they would be sued and destroyed in a sec. now, this is apple, so obviously they can produce crap and still be awarded.

    no matter how much people discuss about it – be it in favor or against apple – this company is still clever in using the peoples useless brains and as a consequence their wallets and get rich..

    it’s sooo funny to see people spending thousands of a variety of currencies and still be happy about a piece of tech which cannot even..make phone calls…hahaha

  18. Keating Thomas Tuesday, July 13, 2010

    Just got the new iPhone4. Apps I love: blood sugar monitor and garage door opener. http://bit.ly/csn8nz

  19. As someone who paid for a bumper I can tell you that that may not be the best answer either. The bumper does not fit in Apples own dock, does not allow use of common headphone plugs, and doesn’t even allow Apples data / charge cable to connect. The cutouts in the bumper are all too small! Recall the bumpers too!

    1. Kevin C. Tofel Pete Tuesday, July 13, 2010

      Pete, I’ve heard various reports about the same problem – the bumper doesn’t allow you to dock the device. Although I’m making a leap here, that leads me to believe the bumpers were a quick-fix solution. That and the fact that Apple never made cases for their phones before. Interesting…

  20. Brian S Hall Tuesday, July 13, 2010

    Maybe. But, doing this would mean several things:

    1. Apple would essentially be admitting there’s a problem. This will drive away customers and initiate lawsuits (in America, at least).

    2. Part of the reason people love Apple is for the great design. A bumper that Apple offers would be a knife in the gut.

    1. Agreed on both counts, Brian. But I just don’t see this situation dying down on its own. Right now, Apple has lost control of it. For the moment, I can’t think of a better way to regain control than to mitigate the immediate problem with bumpers — long-term is another issue though.

  21. A bumper case COST is around $2.30 for a retailer.
    I work at a retail store and markup on cables/accessories is
    about 80%.
    A HDMI cable that retail $30 costs the store about $3.
    A USB printer cable that retails for $15 costs about $0.80
    A 50 foot ethernet cable that retails $30 costs about $6.00

  22. Apple could hand out iPhone 4’s for free – I still wouldn’t take one.

    1. Well I’m not with Apple, but I’ve got an 8Gig iPhone 3G that I would give to you, as long as you set it up with AT&T. All that for the pleasure of watching you make a hypocrite of yourself in public. Luscious, indeed!

  23. Today’s Links Tuesday, July 13, 2010

    [...] Hey Apple: Forget About the Recall, Just Hand Out Free iPhone 4 Cases – GigaOM [...]

  24. Hey Apple, here’s an idea! Why not just fix the problem.

    If you could figure out how to retrofit a fix onto existing phones, that would be great. If not, come out with a revised model. All that would be left would be to figure out how to do an orderly exchange of existing iPhone 4’s.

    It’ll cost a few bucks, but let’s be fair, your loyal customers have been building your coffers for years. It doesn’t show them a lot of respect telling them to hold the phone in a certain way or that a 50-cent Band-Aid, excuse me, bumper will jazz up the look of the device (and let’s be fair again and admit that a lot of people get the phone for its looks.)

    Apple, it’s time to give back and build some customer service cred by making this right.

    1. It’s gonna be called iPhone5 (how smart!). Wait for it. Or better still, ask Santa to bring one for you this X’Mas.

      1. As long as it’s free to existing 4 owners, no problem there!

  25. Some Guy Says He Owns the Majority of Facebook | peteraubrey.com Tuesday, July 13, 2010

    [...] and PR experts are calling one inevitable according to Cult of Mac. Kevin C. Tofel at GigaOm suggests they just hand out free cases to correct the problem. This uproar was amplified by Consumer Reports [...]

  26. I’m in the UK with an iPhone 4 (my wifes) on O2. I’m not an Apple fanboy but do appreciate good design as long as the design doesn’t detract from the function of the device. My wife loves her iPhone 4 as she loved her 3GS before it (which I now have instead of my HD2). However, there is certainly an issue with reception when held in the left hand such as when browsing the web / maps etc. This usually kills the signal stone dead thus rendering the device useless for about 50% of its use. So, question is does she put up with it, try to resolve the issue with a case or bumper which spoils the aesthetics, or return it to O2 as not fit for purpose under the Sale of Goods Act? Time will tell but if Apple don’t do something to acknowledge the hardware issue and continue with their arrogance towards customers then we won’t be buying from them again. People won’t accept being treated like mugs.

  27. iPhone 4 antenna flaw: A brief history | Tech Sanity Check | TechRepublic.com Wednesday, July 14, 2010

    [...] Hey Apple: Forget about the recall, just hand out free iPhone 4 cases (Kevin C. Tofel) [...]

  28. Bad idea! The cases are not a perfect solution, it kills the minimalistic design, and Apple always aim at perfection not compromise. If it’s proven a hardware issue (and it can’t be fixed with a software upgrade), then Apple will simply recall the units sold. Period. It’ll probably take few weeks to happen but they’ll do it if necessary. So basically it’ll be either a recall or nothing! Money won’t drive their decision. Apple can afford any recall with their 40+ billions in cash. What they can’t afford is a harm in their public/brand image. All the money in the world doesn’t help when your products are synonym of poor quality. Ask Microsoft. Apple won’t let iPhone 4 become their Vista.

    1. Wrong. Not a bad idea.

      “The cases are not a perfect solution, it kills the minimalistic design”
      Doesn’t matter. Apple doesn’t need to solve the problem perfectly, or to every customer’s satisfaction. They just need to OFFER to provide a fix, free of charge. That quells the PR debacle.

      iPhone is great, but has never been perfect, nor never will. Was it perfect without multitasking? Without Exchange support? Was it perfect for the first year, when Jobs refused to offer a developer SDK for apps?

      Also a second solution would be to have a bit of clear resistant material, like the Zagg shield, designed for the sides of the phone in question, and applied for free at Apple stores. Keeps the aesthetics, and fixes the problem.

  29. I’ve got an iPhone4. I purchased on of their bumpers specifically to bypass the antenna issue. What I found is that, in weaker areas, I was able to replicate the signal issue…even with the bumper on.

    I can say data speeds were drastically affected, but the inconsistency of it was such that I’m going to reserve judgment until the signal display issue is resolved as I do believe there is a software issue (in addition to the hardware issue)

    It’s disappointing because, other than this signal issue, the iPhone4 is excellent and I prefer iOS to Android (that preference dwindles with each new version of Android)

    I’ve read about other iPhone4 owners still having an issue, even after using a case, so I’m not sure if a free case will cut it for everyone. I think Apple rides this out and fixes this issue with later shipments of iPhone4

  30. Free bumpers are a nice idea, but legally it is not feasible. It would be tacit admission of a hardware defect that would open up a new can of worms, no matter how well meaning. Products are not only recalled for safety reasons but also if the product does not perform as advertised. It boils down to should a person holding the phone naturally have a reasonable expectation that their call wont drop in a weak signal area. In any event Apple has several options but free bumpers isn’t one of them.

  31. Yet another bad article muddling the facts on the signal issue. This part here is especially misleading:

    “Apple claims the antenna offers the best reception ever, yet Consumer Reports testing confirms what many consumers are finding out firsthand: touching two specific parts of the frame simultaneously causes signal degradation.”

    Your setting up a two sided statement here (Apple says good reception, CR says bad), when that isn’t actually the case. Consumer Reports, like every other testing agency that has tested the iPhone 4, said that it had the best reception of any cell phone ever.

    Yes, there is an issue with some phones in some areas on some networks not getting a signal when a big meaty hand grips the antenna. The antenna itself however has the best reception of any cell phone antenna tested.

    The article also implies that handing out the bumpers is a good solution because the alternative is an expensive recall. However, if there is one thing that all the critics of the iPhone 4’s antenna (including Consumer Reports), agree upon, it’s that the possibility or necessity of a recall is practically zero.

    Recalls are done on products that are dangerous, or products that need a manufacturing fix to work correctly. This is not the case with the iPhone 4 and the problem doesn’t even affect a large portion of the users of the iPhone 4. A recall is not even part of the equation and will literally never happen.

    These are all easy facts to find out on the Internet. You might want to do a bit of real research before writing the article next time instead of just adding to the big pile of mis-information on the subject.

    1. Actually, the quoted statement reads factually to me. In the first part, I said “Apple claims the antenna offers the best reception ever” which is a fact. In a related but not undermining phrase, I said ” Consumer Reports testing confirms what many consumers are finding out firsthand: touching two specific parts of the frame simultaneously causes signal degradation” Also true.

      You’re interpreting this as a two-sided argument, when I’m simply relating two facts in a single sentence. ;)

      I’m also not implying that Apple should do a recall (and thanks for the lesson on what a recall is). I’m specifically saying they should consider mitigating their PR issue on this topic by providing free bumpers.

      As far as piling on mis-information = what specifically in the article spreads mis-information, i.e.: what has been presented as fact but isn’t?

    2. Another Apple fan ….
      i dont understand why Apple fans start argument? May be they missed the software upgrade to their heads
      simple science , antenna is faulty because it degrades signal when touched on the lower left corner .
      But works pretty well when the phone is not being touched there . You can call a glass is half filled with water or its half filled with air
      both are right in their own sense, but you can take it the way you feel right .

      :P

  32. Apple should have never released this phone. The thing does not work, and nobody is going to be fooled with them trying to blame AT&T. Recall the iphone 4 and fix your mistake…

  33. Reading through some of these comments, it is amazing the reverential manner in which Apple is held by some people – this design issue / fault with the antennas being defended with an almost religious passion by people who somewhat patronisingly are labelled ‘Fanboys’.

    Now I really like Apple products – we have several iPods of all varieties, and a couple of iPhones (3GS and 4) at home. I like them because they work well, are simple to use, and they are well designed to merge form and function. I think that these are the reasons that Apple have built up such a huge following over recent years.

    Developing and releasing a product as expensive as this that has a fault as significant as this antenna issue, and then not addressing it with a simple statement to the effect ‘We recognise there is an issue, we are sorry for the inconvenience, and we are looking at possible solutions’, is both disappointing of such a well regarded company, and is a sure way to lose the hard earned respect and loyalty of your customer base. People like honesty, integrity, and a little humility!!

    Faults can and do occur in even the most stringent of QA processes. For Apple to put their head in the sand and hope the problem goes away is nothing short of disdainful of the very people who have elevated the company to its current position.

    One last thing. Whilst it is only right and fair for people to correct errors made by others in the reporting of this issue (reception v’s antenna), it does Apple no favours being defended to the death by ‘Fanboys’ when there is a very real issue. Then again, it’s not unknown for people to be willing to die for their religion ;-)

  34. iPhone 4 antenna flaw: A brief history by Jason Hiner « surflightroy Wednesday, July 14, 2010

    [...] Hey Apple: Forget about the recall, just hand out free iPhone 4 cases (Kevin C. Tofel) [...]

  35. I want a 4 but i’m not handing out cash till its fixed

  36. iPhone 4 antenna flaw: A brief history | ZDNet Wednesday, July 14, 2010

    [...] Hey Apple: Forget about the recall, just hand out free iPhone 4 cases (Kevin C. Tofel) [...]

  37. I just got my iPhone 4 online through UK Apple Site and I DONT have any Reception problem at all !!!

    I tried covering the lower left edge by my palm and tried to cover actually the whole edges and sides by my both hands for 3 minutes and nothing happened.. the signal maintained its max reading.

    So I wonder what was the fuss about! I am using the phone in Kuwait so probably the problem occurs with certain network provider? or my shipment got a fixed iPhone ? I don’t know, all I know is that the phone ROCKS!

    1. Max signal strength even with all parts of the phone covered? Just be careful – it can’t be healthy sitting on top of the cell tower!! ;-)

  38. MS should sponser a “I’m a normal phone and I’m an iPhone” ad and give them a taste of thier medicine :)

  39. Android application developer Thursday, July 15, 2010

    iPhone cases / bumpers : A cheap and effective measure for Apple but is going to ruin Apple’s reputation which already is down but the fans dont agree neither does Apple accept that the faulty Antenna screws your call experience .

  40. Bumpers??? if I’ve paid 500 dollars I want a substitution of the device, not a simple hardware patch. I could dislike bumpers, or if it’s unavoidable please correct the actual size of the phone (the nominal one plus the bumper) I think this is a big issue for Apple, they cannot risk to loose marketshare in the smartphone market. Not now that Android is so rampant and WindowsPhone is around the corner…

  41. Is Apple Getting Ready for a Full Recall of the iPhone 4? Thursday, July 15, 2010

    [...] problems, or something to that effect. Whether the company will issue an official recall or simply provide free bumpers to iPhone 4 customers remains to be [...]

  42. Friday Fixit Day Friday, July 16, 2010

    Yes ! In about 7 hours we will finally get the final solution to the iPhone4 signal issues. The software fix is in. Also Apple will announce a new feature for the four: You can now hangup on any call by simply squeezing the phone ! No more hunting for a button to tap, just lightly squeeze and your signal will be terminated saving you additional minutes of usage. BTW, no other smartphone can do this, it is exclusive to the iPhone4 and their will be no extra charge.

    THANK YOU STEVE !

    Now we all get back to kicking Android butt. Life is good.

  43. Chadway Limerick IV Friday, July 16, 2010

    FIVE MORE HOURS !
    FIVE MORE HOURS !

    Millions and millions and millions of iPhone4 owners will be tuned in to the Cupertino announcement TODAY to here the MOTHER OF ALL FIXES that will finally remedy the antenna issue with the Jesus Phone.

    I can hardly wait, this is almost as exciting as when the four first launched only no queue to wait in.

    GET READY EVERYONE….IT’S COMING….TODAY IS THE DAY !!!!

  44. Kevin, did you read the article that you linked? Apple didn’t try to blame the issue on AT&T, they simply said that they’d be adopting a bar formula that AT&T recommends for all phones and they Apple’s own formula was at fault.

  45. Open Thread: Did Apple Do Enough to Make Antennagate Go Away? Friday, July 16, 2010

    [...] that is said to cause the antenna issues when it is held a certain way. Our own Kevin Tofel would likely agree with this strategy. Apple will also offer a free refund within 30 days of purchase if a user is not completely [...]

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