The Emperor’s New Antenna

So I’ve been thinking about “Antennagate.” First thought: stop fucking calling every scandal “-gate,” for Christ’s sake.

Next thought: so what’s the scoop here? Biggest problem in the history of all of mobile phones, or minor issue blown way out of proportion by the tech media? Neither, of course. It helps when you paint opposing positions in extreme terms, granted—but the media really does have a bias toward sensationalist reporting. And by “the media,” I mean all the media, full stop: television, papers, magazines, bloggers, from tech to sports to politics. As we’ve heard ad nauseum, the way you hold any mobile phone that doesn’t have an old-fashioned external antenna sticking out will affect the reception.

Yet claiming that the situation on the iPhone 4 is exactly the same as it is on other phones is at best disingenuous. On other phones, the problem is simply that your hand is interfering with reception; on the iPhone 4, the “death grip” bridges two antennas. It’s fair for Apple to point out that every phone with an internal antenna experiences a drop in reception quality based on the user’s grip, but the dB drop in reception sensitivity on the iPhone is measurably much greater than on the other phones.

Even so, Apple’s correct in pointing out, however sulkily it may come across, that it’s not as if people are returning the phone in droves. The iPhone 4 gets better reception overall than previous models; the new antenna design has at least a few good points to it as well. If this had happened to any other phone, it might have been remarked on—and that’s all. It’d be a bullet point in the “cons” listing of reviews. Done. No days of front-page headlines, no press conferences for national media, no jokes on late night talk shows. Only Apple gets this kind of attention. (As a pundit quipped a few years ago, can you imagine Dell making headlines when they introduce a damn Bluetooth mouse?)

So the question is really why. Why does Apple get this kind of attention? Why do they inspire that kind of loyalty from users and inspire this kind of hatred from critics?

Apple has always implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) asserted you should use their products because they’re better than the competition in the ways that matter to users. Apple’s products frequently don’t win on a feature-by-feature comparison, to which Apple fans tend to reply that sealed batteries have turned out to be not so bad in practice, that we can actually find all the software we want for our iOS devices no matter how philosophically objectionable the App Store is, and that we really don’t care that the iPad has no USB port and that the iPhone cannot be used as a wifi hotspot, HD projector and five-speed blender. There is a large subset of tech users who go into apoplectic fits at that, seeing it as proof that we’re brainwashed morons. So be it.

Every recent consumer electronics product from Apple—definitely the iPad, but all iterations of the iPhone including the initial one—has been greeted with rounds of articles crowing about what an arrogant, foolhardy mistake it is and how this will finally, finally, be the moment the emperor is revealed to have no clothes. And ultimately this is what’s so infuriating about Apple: that’s not what happens. Ever. The critics are eternally playing the part of Charlie Brown trying to kick the football, and Steve Jobs always yanks it away at the last second. Nobody talks about making a “Nexus One killer” or an “HP Slate killer” or a “Zune killer”; Apple’s consumer electronics products become the reference points for their fields. The Mac isn’t an exception here, either. While it’s by no means a market leader, Windows became far more Mac-like over the years than the Mac became Windows-like.

And I think this is what makes critics so giddy with delight over the iPhone 4 antenna issue: no matter how it’s spun, it’s a genuine problem. Apple took a chance on a new antenna design and it has a high-visibility issue which could likely have been mitigated by a different design. Has the issue been blown way out of proportion? Yes, absolutely. But it’s still a genuine problem, and one that Apple has been handling pretty gracelessly. The emperor still has clothes, but he’s been pantsed.

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