Apple Blames Bar Bug for iPhone Reception Woes
Apple says it has discovered a flaw in iPhone software that makes the phone sometimes display more cellular service bars than it should. It's promised to fix the issue with a patch. However, some users claim that the real problem is hardware-based -- an antenna design flaw that degrades the signal when the phone is held a certain way -- rather than a misleading set of service bars.
07/02/10 11:46 AM PT
Apple stated on Friday that the reception problems many iPhone 4 users are complaining about are real -- and that they are caused by a faulty software algorithm.
"We have discovered the cause of this dramatic drop in bars, and it is both simple and surprising," reads a statement from the company. "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."
Apple is adopting AT&T's formula for calculating the number of bars that should be displayed to indicate signal strength. It will issue a free software update incorporating the new formula to iPhone 4 users "within a few weeks."
Still Crazy After All These Years
The problem has existed since the original iPhone was launched, Apple said. Therefore, the software update will also be available for the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 3G.
The original iPhone was launched back in 2007 and users have been complaining about spotty reception since. AT&T has borne the brunt of the complaints and has spent billions of dollars upgrading its wireless network as a result.
"I've been in plenty of places where my iPhone display shows five bars of signal strength and I get no reception," Maribel Lopez, principal analyst and founder of Lopez Research, told MacNewsWorld. She has an iPhone 3G.
Apple Fights a Rearguard Action
"We were surprised when we read reports of reception problems, and we immediately began investigating them," Apple's statement continues, despite admitting later in the statement that the problems have plagued every version of the iPhone.
"Gripping almost any mobile phone in certain ways will reduce its reception by one or more bars," Apple added. "This is true of iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, as well as many Droid, Nokia and RIM phones."
Apple found that the formula it uses to calculate how many bars should be displayed to indicate signal strength "in many cases" mistakenly displays two more bars than it should for a given signal strength. In other words, an iPhone owner may see four bars when the signal strength is only equivalent to two bars, for example.
"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," Apple said.
"The reception for the iPhone 4 is much better than for the 3G," Lopez said. "Apple has made some improvements to the device."
It's Not All in Users' Minds
Given Apple's various responses to reports of reception problems with the iPhone 4, what should we believe? When reports of the problem first surfaced after the iPhone 4 went on sale June 24, Cupertino said users were holding the device wrong, according to Engadget.
Then on June 27, MacRumors reported that Apple Chairman and CEO Steve Jobs denied the iPhone 4 had reception problems. "There are no reception issues. Stay tuned," he apparently wrote in response to MacRumors reader "rfbandit."
Does Apple's statement this time that it's a software problem reflect what's really happening?
"I buy Apple's explanation," Carl Howe, director of anywhere consumer research at the Yankee Group, told MacNewsWorld.
Why didn't Apple use AT&T's algorithm in the first place? After all, AT&T is its exclusive carrier in the United States.
"Apple has a pretty strong opinion that no detail is so small and insignificant that it can't be improved by its applying some design to it," Howe explained. "This is one case where that detail refinement didn't work out."
Stevie Says Relax?
Jobs is known to occasionally respond directly to individual customers who send him email. The iPhone 4's antenna and reception issues have compelled many users to write in, and some of his apparent responses have fueled a small controversy.
The Boy Genius Report blog published an email exchange between one of its readers, J. Jason Burford, and a respondent who appeared to be Jobs regarding iPhone 4 antenna and reception problems. The exchange grew testy and ended with the writer claiming to be Jobs telling Burford, "Retire, relax, enjoy your family. It is just a phone. Not worth it."
Apple has since denied that Jobs was involved in this exchange; the Boy Genius Report then updated its posting with screenshots of the emails.
Separately, Apple and AT&T have been hit by several class-action lawsuits over the iPhone 4's spotty reception. The claims include allegations of negligence, intentional and negligent misrepresentation, defective design, fraud by concealment and breach of warranty.