Too many bars

Sometimes, fortune favors the hesitant


I certainly love new technology, but long experience has taught me to hesitate a bit before I drop a large amount of cash on the latest gizmo. As I watch the hubbub around the 4G iPhone, I am once more quite happy to have waited a bit. To be honest, I have not yet upgraded my 3G iPhone to the new iOS 4 either. I always wait a few weeks to see if any problems are reported by the suckers, uh, brave souls who are first in line.

Apple is not one of my favorite companies for many reasons, but I do love the iPhone. It would be easy to laugh at the fiasco surrounding the reception problems except that I actually want new technology to be amazing and awesome. Despite my feelings for the company, it is sad to see great potential fall short of the mark. Even so, Apple’s response to this issue has been nothing short of ridiculous.

Stunningly unbelievable

Yesterday, Apple released a statement with another explanation of the iPhone 4G reception problem. After failing to convince iPhone users that they were holding the phone incorrectly, Apple finally admitted that there is a problem with the new phones. It turns out that the problem is not caused by badly designed hardware which would force an expensive recall. It is merely a bug in the software that can be fixed in the blink of an eye by issuing a software patch. As Dana Carvey’s church lady would say: How con-VEEN-ient!

Apple ‘stunned’ to find iPhones show too many bars

According to Apple, all models of the iPhone have calculated the signal strength incorrectly. In areas of low reception, the erroneous calculations cause the phones to display more bars than are warranted. When a user “incorrectly” grasps the phone, the bars adjust to show the true signal strength which was already low. According to Apple, the upgrade will change the calculation to better reflect the actual signal strength.

Since many people already think of the AT&T network as best reason to not own an iPhone, I wonder if this software upgrade will simply add fuel to the AT&T fire. Up until now, Apple has been relatively silent about AT&T’s problems. Now, Apple seems more than willing to throw AT&T to the wolves in order to protect themselves.

Manipulating the bar

Cingular Logo

Remember Cingular: the company that eventually became the AT&T that we know today? They created a marketing ploy that I always thought was rather ingenious even though it was a bit misleading. During their heyday, they launched a major advertising campaign around the quality of their network. The symbol for this campaign was the set of five bars that you can see in their logo. Look closely at the logo, and you will see that they even put a trademark on it.

I remember seeing one of the first commercials to promote this concept. The commercial featured a guy complaining about the lousy reception on his phone. His friend, a Cingular customer, had a perfect signal with all five bars present. As I looked at my Verizon cellphone, I realized the brilliance of the Cingular scheme. My Verizon phone only had four bars total. In an area where I and a Cingular customer both had a strong signal, his phone would show five bars and mine would only show four. We would both have equally good reception, but his phone would appear to have a stronger signal.

I have no idea whether Cingular’s network was actually better than Verizon’s network, but the point is that it did not matter. Cingular made their network seem better by simply adding an extra bar to their phones. In an era where network quality was a major selling point and competition between service providers was fierce, even the appearance of having a better network could be a big help.

In such an environment, I wonder if cellular providers would have resorted to any other means to improve the perceived quality of their networks. Would it really come as a surprise to learn that cellular providers had tweaked the signal strength calculations to make their networks look better? When I ask this question, I am not just referring to Cingular, or AT&T, but all of them. Of course, I’m am merely speculating here since I have no evidence of anything, but I really doubt that the signal strength calculation was a mistake. It was there to make the AT&T network look better than it actually is.

In the long run, though, does any of this actually matter? When you have a dropped call or a slow data connection, do you really care how many bars are displayed? As a whole, iPhone users are likely to be more perceptive when it comes to technology, and they tend to have greater expectations. Someone who plops down a big wad of cash to purchase a top of the line product tends to be more upset when it fails, and a smoke and mirrors solution will simply increase the animosity.

Apple’s ploy may harm their relationship with AT&T. It has certainly caused a great deal of laughter, sarcasm, and outrage among iPhone users. In the end, though, I doubt that it will solve any actual problems. For a media savvy IT company, such as Apple, it would seem to be an incredibly stupid misstep.

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