Apple Did the Right Thing, but It'll Cost 'Em

Free bumper case and semi-apology addresses iPhone 4's Achilles Heel

By Wilson Rothman
|  Friday, Jul 16, 2010  |  Updated 7:30 PM EDT
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Apple Did the Right Thing, but It'll Cost 'Em

AP

Did Jobs win you over?

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The howls about the iPhone 4's antenna were only getting louder. Apple could have probably stayed out of sight as the villagers marched past with pitchforks and torches. That would have been bad. Instead Steve Jobs stood up and defended the phone, the antenna flaw and the company. It was the right thing to do, but it comes at a cost.

Apple's defense — that the iPhone 4 is much like other smart phones on the market — could not have come at a worse time, as its competitors, particularly those running Google's Android OS, are in the middle of a dramatic surge.

People are saying Jobs was haughty today, but it's surprising that anyone expects humility from that guy. To borrow a phrase from Fake Steve Jobs (aka Newsweek columnist Dan Lyons), Jobs invented the friggin' iPhone — maybe you've heard of it. The crowd was greeted by a cocky choice of song: Jonathan Mann's comedic but catchy "iPhone 4 Antenna Song," which contains the lyrics: "If you bought one and you don't like it, bring it back ... but you know you won't."

So in spite of Jobs' "We're not perfect" banner, the continued arrogance is no surprise, nor is the free-bumper-case Band-Aid solution and the semi-apology — one that went to customers but not stockholders.

What is surprising is Jobs' defense of the iPhone as just like all the rest, that "most smart phones behave exactly the same way."

Jobs, on stage, compared his phone to a BlackBerry Bold 9700, an HTC Droid Eris and a Samsung Omnia 2, concluding, "All smart phones seem to do this. We haven't figured out a way around the laws of physics yet."

Not six months ago, Jobs was using the term "magical" to describe his products, now he's confessing not only that he's bound to the laws of physics, but he's as bound to them as everyone else.

I said before that I've always taken care to avoid gripping the bottom of any phone, from the Motorola Razr to the iPhone 4, because it hurts reception. Besides, no iPhone, in four generations, has ever won the Best Phone for Making Phone Calls trophy. That fact never hurt sales before. Now, through a twist of imaginative design, it's suddenly considered the iPhone's Achilles Heel.

It's a sign of the times that we have to clarify, when talking about phones, that we're just talking about the "phone" part of the phone. (Did you follow that?) The iPhone 4's design, its feature set, its screen, its software, its application base — they are all unparalleled. Sorry, haters, it's true.

Yet Android is catching up. It delivers most of the same experience, if not the same aesthetic, and it does it on every carrier. It even comes in different shapes and sizes, and at better prices. Apple's argument against the Android menace has been, "Yeah, but we're Apple." Now, in order to fend off a different kind of threat, the argument is, "Yeah, but we're just like everybody else."

"The migration from iPhone to Android was already going on prior to the iPhone 4's release," wrote Ashok Kumar, an analyst at Rodman & Renshaw, who told me that while "Apple is a religion," this debacle is "definitely going to cause consumers who are more pragmatic in their approaches to explore other options. Today, Android is another credible option."

Meanwhile, because of all of the noise about the iPhone 4 antenna, the religion's disciples, what Kumar called the "virtual army of marketing volunteers," may be losing enthusiasm.

Other analysts don't seem too worried about Apple. Piper Jaffray predicted 9.5 million iPhone 4s sold in the quarter that ends on Sept. 30, and they're still predicting that. People aren't returning the phones in droves. The free bumper will make a lot of people happy.

Still, Apple's get-out-of-the-dog-house presentation was a gift to Google and the Android camp, a leveling of a playing field that had heretofore been magically slanted by Steve Jobs' physics-defying powers.

Catch up with Wilson on Twitter at @wjrothman to talk about iPhones, Android phones, reality distortion or crazy cooking gadgets. (Bonus points if it's crazy cooking gadgets.) And a special shout-out to gdgt.com, whose liveblog was definitely the best one out there today.

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