All of Steve Jobs's Men

Those who visit the tech world are probably aware of the iPhone4 antenna issues and all the media hoopla surrounding it. I have no real dog in the fight, horse in this race or cliché in this idiom. I don’t own an iPhone and I’m not shilling for Apple. But it pains me to see a bunch of tech-savvy people making crappy emotional arguments about something that should be quantifiable,and/or making crappy technical arguments because they don’t look at what the data are (or aren’t) telling them.

Apple had to respond, of course, and there are a number of articles out there explaining the business psychology of this; in some sense it’s already too late — once the idea that Al Gore invented the internet is out there, actual facts will do very little to change things, so the undercurrent that the phone is a dud cannot truly be slain (the best you can do is a flesh wound). There is no Vorpal blade for persistent myths of the internet. Some people will believe that because they heard it, and others will repeat it because they love to hate Apple. But you have to try, and so a solution was proposed. Free bumpers for everyone. Feel free to discuss whether Steve Jobs was not apologetic enough to suit you, or whatever.

That’s not my point.

My point is that people kept making this out as a technical problem, when all along it has been a PR problem, and a lot of people not employed by Apple kept insisting otherwise (except that perception is reality, hence the solution mentioned above). I’ve seen it called a design flaw and also called a defect. The latter is flat-out wrong — the problem is not with the phone itself being faulty, as if swapping it out for another phone would solve the issue. The problem is user-specific. Is it a design flaw? Yes and no. It is, in the sense that there is degradation in performance that can be avoided with a technical fix, but then you have to call any sub-optimal performance a design flaw. You have to insist that cheap technology suffers from a design flaw if it doesn’t work as well as a more expensive technology, and I think that this is not what we mean by flaw. It is a trade-off, a natural and expected offshoot from optimizing on multiple variables, including price. You want better performance? Spend a few extra bucks. In what industries is that not the case?

The real metric for seeing if this is a “flaw” is to do a proper analysis of performance and the analysis, for the most part, was absolute crap. Most of it concentrated on how much the signal dropped when you held the phone the “wrong” way, and went no further. BFD. That’s a science fair project. When you attenuate a signal, it goes down. When you short out an antenna (or at least change the capacitance or change the resistance of it, whatever was actually happening), you will lose signal. What the analyses lacked is any sort of context for these numbers, and while careful data-taking is important, the real tough part about science is in proper interpretation — figuring out what the data mean. And few of the stories did that. Diminished signal is not proper context, because all phones do that when you cover the antenna. All that these numbers show is that the phone works better when you don’t cover the antenna. Confirming this is not going to get you to Sweden.

You can’t compare it to a different phone on another network, because everyone knows AT&T sucks. Their network has made them infamous, like El Guapo. The real comparison of any validity would be to properly compare the phone to the one it replaced. Because the real question is this: Is the new one better? I haven’t done any exhaustive cataloging of all the stories on the iphone4, but of the dozens I’ve read, I have seen just one technical analysis that addresses this (though there are undoubtedly others). The conclusion? The new phone holds calls at a lower signal strength than the old one.

The other bad comparison was the number of drpped calls form the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4. The new phone drops more calls — that’s bad, right? What if I told you that I did a survey and found 25 people liked a name brand of soft drink, but another one found that 100 people liked Crappa-Cola? Do those numbers mean anything? What if I had to survey 10,000 people to find the 100 who liked Crappa-Cola, but only 50 to get the result for the name brand? The numbers would be meaningless as a direct comparison — we have to normalize the responses. That’s just basic science analysis. So a direct comparison of the numbers of dropped calls is just as meaningless without knowing that we are similarly normalizing the data.

When John Gruber of Daring Fireball reported those numbers, I sent an email to point this out to him. I had to mention that this isn’t an Apples-to-Apples comparison (and, of course, I’m using the obvious pun, because that’s what I do. It was low-hanging fruit. Damn, I did it again) I wrote, in part,

What is important is the comparison to the previous version of the phone: does the iPhone4 drop calls that the 3 or 3GS does not? And the answer that seems to be, for the most part, “no.” It’s hard to tell, because most of the Geekmedia aren’t looking at it that way, and much of the remaining evidence is anecdotal.

In Antennagate Bottom Line, you mention the comparison of numbers of dropped calls, but I argue that this is not the right metric. What one needs to know is if the iPhone4 drops a call that would not be dropped by a 3GS. If the additional drops are in areas that the 3GS would have never connected in the first place, then the statistic isn’t telling us what everyone claims it is. All that would mean is that there is a large drop rate in regions that were previously regarded as dead zones. That’s an improvement, not a regression.

Without that information, one does not truly know how to interpret the statistic.

And not only did he made a post addressing that, he frikkin’ quoted my email! (and this little ego-boost is the whole reason for finally writing this up. I’ve been quoted by Gruber and linked to by Kottke. In your face, world!)