The Antennagate Reality Check


I remember the days before I hooked up my TV to a cable or satellite system. I struggled with a rabbit ears antenna, which had the temerity to deliver a better picture whenever I put my hands over it.

To add insult to injury, my wife once suggested I just stand there so she could watch her favorite soap opera. But it was a lesson well learned, that antennas were quite sensitive to large sacks of water, such as your hands.

That takes us to Apple Inc. and a certain scandal about the fact that even smartphones must obey the laws of physics, known affectionately as Antennagate.

Now if you can believe some of the more fiery bloggers out there, Apple is poised for a big fall as the result of the alleged Antennagate scandal, where the latest and greatest iPhone was found guilty of signal attenuation and demands were made for a recall or some other sort of fix.

This whole sorry affair began just days after Apple released the latest and greatest iPhone 4, again called “magical” by Steve Jobs, the company’s mercurial co-founder and CEO for life. One blogging site soon discovered that if your hands covered a specific spot on this gadget’s lower left, after a few seconds the signal strength display would drop by several bars.

Thus began a virtual epidemic of YouTube videos and online posts where the iPhone’s “Vulcan Death Grip” was duplicated. Even more important, it was discovered that you could create similar symptoms on other phones once you found the appropriate grip.

Unfortunately, Apple messed up big time by not taking the furor seriously. Early on, Steve Jobs flippantly dismissed the problem when he responded to a complaint from an Apple customer with the statement that you should just hold it differently.

An old vaudeville joke comes to mind: A patient visits a doctor and says, “Doctor it hurts when I do that.” The doctor responds, “Don’t do that.”

Within short order, Antennagate became a phenomenon, and Apple slowly came to realize they had some explaining to do. But their first formal effort simply didn’t ring true with many members of the news media, although it was likely correct. It seems that, for three years, Apple’s signal display algorithm was wrong, overoptimistically displaying too many bars. That made the death grip symptoms seem worse than they actually were.

Apple’s response was to update the iOS 4 software to provide a more accurate signal reading. You had to wonder, in passing, whether AT&T’s often-disputed claim of “more bars” was the result of a similar stunt.

The day after this iOS update appeared, Steve Jobs interrupted his Hawaiian vacation and led a special media event at Apple’s Cupertino, CA headquarters to set the record straight.

Jobs was at once apologetic and uncompromising when he revealed the smartphone industry’s dirty little secret, that all of these devices could be made to exhibit signal irregularities if you held them the wrong way.

What Jobs didn’t mention is that the industry clearly knew this. Some Nokia smartphones have long shipped with warning labels cautioning you of the negative consequences of covering the internal antenna with your hand. There’s a widely posted screenshot of the manual from an HTC smartphone with a similar warning.

Apple even posted a special section on their Web site,, where they presented videos showing just how to duplicate a death grip on a small number of popular smartphones, including the iPhone 4’s predecessor, the iPhone 3GS.

Despite the clear evidence that Apple was right, executives from the likes of HTC, Motorola, Nokia and Samsung were in full deny mode. They knew all about antennas, Apple was just the untutored new kid on the black. But they never actually disputed Apple’s evidence to the contrary, nor the numerous YouTube videos revealing similar issues.

In a logical world, rather than hide the truth, the smartphone makers might get together to devise improved antenna technologies that might reduce or eliminate signal attenuation problems. Apple even invited selected members of the media to tour their custom-built $100 million antenna testing facility, populated by a number of PhDs. This was a rarity for the ultra-secretive consumer electronics company. They were caught flatfooted by the uproar over the perceive iPhone 4 problems, and needed to do big time damage control.

Despite published reports of a possible recall or some sort of software fix, Apple’s response was to offer free cases to customers through September 30th. If you shield the iPhone’s sensitive region, the problem doesn’t exist, but that’s also true for rival companies who have not chosen to jump on the free case bandwagon.

Although some media pundits continue to gripe over what they perceive to be Apple’s emotional and defensive response to Antennagate, customers don’t seem to notice. As the iPhone 4 spreads far and wide around the world, it remains seriously backordered. Apple continues to report record sales and profits, just behind Microsoft’s in fact.

While there may be an iPhone 5 launch a lot earlier than you might expect, it’s clear to me that Apple dodged a bullet here. They still have lots of customer goodwill, and tens of millions of satisfied customers.

But they also succumbed to a problem that has impacted others in recent years as the result of the blogosphere and 24/7 cable news. When confronted with negative news, they waited too long to get out in front of the problem. If there’s another Antenngate in Apple’s future, you can bet they won’t make that mistaken again.

— Award-winning technology journalist Gene Steinberg is host of the nationally syndicated radio show, The Tech Night Owl LIVE ( His daily commentaries are also posted on The Tech Night Owl (