A quality that I find hugely important but increasingly rare in people is the willingness to admit mistakes. Growing up I wasn’t really part of a culture in which mistakes are openly discussed and used as an opportunity to learn. For a long time, my own approach was therefore one of just moving on or trying to fix things without admitting to any mistakes (often compounding the initial mistake in the process).
from Admitting Mistakes, by Albert Wenger on continuations.com
Apple did not handle the iPhone 4 antenna question perfectly, and it serves as a great case study on what works and what doesn’t. For several weeks, the problem vexed Apple. In the end, the deft handling of the issue at Friday’s press conference likely put the issue to rest, but the mis-steps along the way are also useful to note. Here are a few things I noticed.
It’s not uncommon for companies to be quiet about an issue when it first appears, and with Apple this seems to be fixed in their culture. When a product problem comes to light, you really don’t know how big a problem you have. Even if you are aware of the underlying issue, you already judged it to be minor, so some reassessment must happen. Still, a simple, clean communication is important. Customers need to know that you take all their questions and concerns seriously and are investigating the matter.
Mistake #1: Apple didn’t say enough, from the beginning
Apple should have assured customers early that while their tests show this is the best iPhone ever, they take ever customer’s questions and concerns seriously and are actively investigating this matter.
On July 2nd, Apple released an open letter to customers, describing a software flaw in the way the number of bars are calculated.
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.
from Letter from Apple Regarding iPhone 4 by Apple PR
Mistake #2: Apple said too much, too early – when they didn’t have their full story together.
When Apple released information about the algorithm for calculating the number of bars, they were telling the truth about part of the story. While their press release on the issue was carefully worded, this partial solution was sure to be misconstrued as evasive and dishonest. Learn to be a little cynical about your own “spin”.
While it’s critical to keep assuring customers that you are working on the problem, you also don’t want to release partial information that doesn’t stand on its own.
Apple Forums and Consumer Reports
Consumer Reports came out with their review of the iPhone 4, and despite giving it the highest ratings of any smartphone on the market, did not put the phone on their Recommended list. Apple was reported as having removed posts from their customer forums that were pointing to the Consumer Reports review.
Mistake #3: Apple squelched discussion of the issue on their customer forums.
This was so foolish, I didn’t believe it at first. Shel Israel sums it up nicely:
The Apple irony is that there are those pointing out the flaws in the CR study. Apple is circle the wagons when they don’t have to.
shel israel (shelisrael) on twitter
When you are getting reports of product problems, it is critical to understand what the problem is and what it isn’t. People talk about the “hastily called press conference”, implying that Apple suddenly decided they had to talk about this problem. But the preparation involved in the presentation made it pretty clear there was nothing “hasty” about the press conference. Apple had been preparing this information for weeks. The timing and short notice of the event was understandable – as soon as Apple had all the information lined up, it called in the press. Why let this all continue over the weekend?
It’s a lot of work sorting out all the details of any systemic product problem, no matter how minor. Apple did a very good job of presenting the case…
This solution comes at the end of 22 days of Apple engineers “working their butts off,” according to Steve, with “physics” ultimately being pinned as the main culprit. Apple claims you can replicate the left-handed “death grip” bar-dropping problem on the BlackBerry Bold 9700, HTC Droid Eris, and Samsung Omnia II, and that “phones aren’t perfect.” Steve also claims that only 0.55% of people who bought the iPhone 4 have called into AppleCare to complain about the antenna, and the phone has a 1.7% return rate at AT&T, compared to 6% with the 3GS, though he would cop to a slight increase in dropped callsover the iPhone 3GS. For this Steve has what he confesses to be a pet theory: that 3GS users were using the case they had from the 3G, and therefore weren’t met with the horrible reality of a naked, call dropping handset. Hence the free case solution, which will probably satisfy some, infuriate others, and never even blip onto the radar of many of the massive horde of consumers that’s devoured this product in unprecedented numbers.
from Apple to give away free cases to iPhone 4 users by Engadget
and most people will be reasonable…
I can’t get myself worked up about the antenna issue. I’m simply not seeing the widespread user complaints that I normally associate with a functional defect in a product. I don’t experience the issue when I hold it normally. Plus, when you slap it in any kind of case, the problem disappears entirely.
from iPhone 4 Press Conference – The Post-Game Wrapup by Andy Ihnatko
even though some people just want attention, such as is evident in Senator Chuck Schumer’s Ridiculous open letter to Apple. Heck, Consumer Reports is even susceptible, evident in their continuing refusal to put the phone on their Recommended list – the phone that they have rated higher than any other!
Well, this is ironic. Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone 4, the smartphone that Consumer Reports says it can’t recommend, is also the one ranked highest in its latest ratings. The device scored 76 out of 100 points–two points ahead of its closest rivals, the iPhone 3Gs and the HTC Evo 4G (click on image above to enlarge).
from Despite “Don’t Buy” Recommendation, iPhone 4 is Consumer Reports’ Top-Rated Smartphone – by John Paczkowski on All Things Digital
By the way, the best reporting I’ve seen on the technical issues around the iPhone 4 antenna are in the Anandtech review of the product.The full review is definitely worth reading if you are considering an iPhone 4. They cover all aspects of the product, including the signal strength attenuation issue, with their customary attention to detail:
Now, there are two vastly different possibilities for what happens to the bar visualization after you drop 24 dB. I happen to live less than one block from an AT&T UMTS tower (it’s across the street, literally), and have exceptionally strong signal in all of my house – it’s part of why I chose to live here, actually. Signal is above -65 dBm in every single room, in most cases it’s at -51 dBm. When I incur that worst case drop of 24 dB from squeezing the phone, I fall down to -83 dBm, which is still visualized as 5 bars.
from Apple’s iPhone 4: Thoroughly Reviewed by by Brian Klug & Anand Lal Shimpi on AnandTech
What will happen between now and September 30th, when Apple says it will reassess the case offer? I suspect they will come out with a new coating for the antenna band. This will be a cost reduction for them, as compared to providing cases to everyone, and will also be the sort of permanent solution that Consumer Reports and others seem to be looking for. I think September 30th was picked because they have some confidence that they can in that time complete the engineering on this solution and have it into production.
Have different ideas about how Apple could have handled this better? Or what they did here that was worth emulating? I’d love to hear from you!