(Quotes, data and pictures from Engadget)

Antennagate. This is how Steve Jobs referred to the whole news and customer dissatisfaction that has been going on over the last few weeks about the new release in the iPhone family.

If I am working by my computer, I like to leave Mozilla browsing Engadget’s real time coverage of Apple’s press conferences; this is what I did today. Endgadget does always an excellent job covering these kind of events, updating about every minute – or even faster – and constantly uploading pictures.

Steve Jobs has appeared to discuss about the iPhone 4 coverage problems and his statements and conclusions are really unexpected – at least to me -. However, I must agree he is quite right. He’s shown data proving how it is common that cellphones loose coverage when being hold with the hand.

He has talked about 17 anechoic chambers at Apple in which they have invested over 100 million $. Only 0.55% of the users who purchased an iPhone 4 have called/emailed AppleCare to report a problem and only 1.7% of the devices have been returned, compared with a 6.0% of returns of iPhone 3GS. Finally, the dropped calls have increased, but not too much according to Jobs. There’s been an increase of less than one extra call dropped out of every 100. This, despite trying to make it sound like good news, doesn’t sound good to me. The probability of dropping a call is the major indicator of a network/device quality; in other words, it is way more annoying to have a call drop while one is talking – picture a very important business call and, all of a sudden, it drops – than not being able to make a call – probability of blocked call -. The ones who have studied networking know that an increase of 1% in the dropped call probability is quite bad.

However, the data that jobs is showing seems to proof everyone wrong. The iPhone 4 works just fine and has similar issues as other phones. Quoting jobs (quoted at Engadget):

So the heart of the problem is, smartphones have issues, and we made it easy to exploit the issue by showing people where to hold the phone to cover the antenna. But the data supports the fact that the iPhone 4 is the best smartphone in the world, and there is no Antennagate… there is a challenge for the entire smartphone industry to improve its antenna technology so there are no weak spots. So today we’re going to try and take care of our customers.

In my opinion, I believe Jobs is right with most of his statements. However, I still find the whole thing suspicious. Most phones have an internal antenna; there is never direct contact between the antenna and the hand, there is always a non-conductive material between them. On the other hand, if you are actually touching the antenna, one should expect things to change. I have a colleague who is a very experience Antenna/RF Engineer. He commented me how touching the antenna changes the physical properties at the given carrier frequency and thus, one can loose the impedance match between the antenna and the RF chain. So, in other words, the signal is not lost because it is somehow blocked or absorbed by the hand, but because the physical properties of the antenna change and the S parameters -transmission coefficient/reflection coefficient – get messed up. When this happens, most of the electromagnetic energy bounces back to the antenna and is radiated again instead of transmitted into the receiver.

So, summarizing, Steve Jobs is right, this happens with every phone and data shows how customer satisfaction is higher with the latest iPhone that it was with previous ones. However, an external antenna looks very cool but one must take into consideration the contact antenna/skin when matching the impedances at the RF chain.

Having said that, for the ones who will try to see if their phones loose signal when being held, this is what Jobs answered to a reporter asking a question during Q&A:

Q: I can’t get my Bold to drop right now, maybe you can show me how to do it?
Steve: You may not see it in certain areas.
Hmm, that didn’t really sound like an answer to us.

Update: I forgot to mention that Jobs announced that Apple always wants customers to be happy – and I think they do a great job at it – so they are going to give free cases – and refund the already purchased ones – until September 30th.

Update 2: A couple of minutes thinking about this made me realize about something. If the antenna problems happen with every phone and they are related to the hand being in the middle of the way, why giving away free cases? The problems are solved with a plastic case because plastic is a non-conductive material. When the phone is held with a case, the physical properties are not change, the impedances are well matched and there is no signal loss due to antenna-RFchain incorrect match. I still think it’s a problem with the phone.

I still like the iPhone 4 though; a masterpiece with a bad antenna.