The iPhone 4 Antenna Issue Won't Die — Because Apple Won't Let It

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In the past few weeks, I’ve been seeing more and more iPhone 4s out in the wild. I think it’s pretty safe to assume that Apple has added a least a couple million more to the 3 million sales figure they revealed at their press conference three weeks ago. But despite there being millions of devices out there, one thing that has been odd the past couple of weeks has been the lack of talk about the iPhone 4’s antenna issue. Reading the headlines three weeks ago, you would have thought Apple was finished — that the iPhone 4 would be a dud. There was absolutely going to be a recall, remember?

Instead, talk has died down about the issue. Those still talking about the issue seem to be those who don’t actually own the device. Those that do own it seem to be happy. Again, we’re talking millions of people. I still have yet to hear of anyone I know returning one. Meanwhile, Apple still can’t make the device fast enough to meet demand. And their stock price is up over 10 points since the “Antennagate” press conference. The world has moved on.

Or it had.

The most peculiar thing about all of this iPhone 4 antenna stuff is the way Apple is handling it. Specifically, they keep doing things to bring it back into the news, ensuring the story won’t die.

The latest is the removal of Mark Papermaster, the man who was the head of Apple’s mobile device hardware operations. While neither Apple nor Papermaster have given an official reason for the departure, word is that he was fired because of the iPhone 4 antenna issue. And naturally, that’s the way everyone in the press is covering the story. The man behind the iPhone 4’s antenna screw-up has been fired.

Apple had to know that’s the way this would play out. And they had to know it would bring the antenna issue back to the forefront of the news. So why on Earth would they want that?

Well, obviously, they don’t. But perhaps they felt by sacrificing the lamb, as it were, they would placate even more people that they were doing something to remedy the situation. But again, with the story having died down, I’m not sure anyone was really looking for that.

So perhaps Apple did just really want to axe Papermaster for the screw-up. Okay, but again, the timing here is awful. Just wait a few months and then do it quietly — maybe around the time you launch the Verizon iPhone. It would be a much smaller story at that point — at the very least, far removed from Antennagate.

But maybe Apple actually sacked Papermaster a while ago. Maybe The New York Times was only now able to dig up the information and confirm it. After all, it was SVP Bob Mansfield (the exec taking over Papermaster’s role) that was in Apple’s initial promotional videos talking about the iPhone 4’s hardware. Those videos were obviously made before anyone (in the public) knew about the antenna issue. And it was also Mansfield that was on hand during Apple’s press conference three weeks ago. Papermaster was nowhere to be seen. So maybe it has been a while since Papermaster actually worked at Apple.

But here’s something else that’s odd: we were told during our tour of Apple’s antenna testing facilities that the iPhone 4 had been in testing for two years. That means it was being tested before Papermaster actually worked for Apple. Daring Fireball’s John Gruber adds a bit more to this today by saying an “informed source” told him that the antenna issue “bug” was filed two years ago — again, before Papermaster worked at Apple. So perhaps Papermaster’s dismissal was about more than the antenna issue. Or, again, maybe it was just Apple making a move to show that they’re holding someone accountable.

Regardless, assuming Papermaster didn’t leave on his own, Apple was in control of the timing of all of this. Why not just wait to make this move until Antennagate was far in the rearview mirror? Instead, a story that was fading just came roaring back to life.

And this is hardly the only time Apple has rekindled this fire.

First of all, Apple CEO Steve Jobs emailing concerned customers and telling them to hold it different was obviously a mistake. While Jobs was undoubtedly trying to be helpful, he was also undoubtedly annoyed at having to answer such a question. And the press (including us), rightfully teed off on that. Apple has a history of being completely silent as external situations involving them swirl. That would have been the better approach until they had finalized their official response.

Second, that official response, the Antennagate press conference, was a bit odd. While I correctly predicted what it was likely to be all about (explaining to the press what the facts were from Apple’s perspective), doing so in such a grandiose manner simply amplified the whole situation further. And it led people to believe that a recall was indeed coming (which Apple likely had to leak out that it wasn’t).

Instead, we got free bumpers. While I said this was necessary, I didn’t believe we needed a press conference to notify people of that. The whole press conference just led to the perception that something was indeed wrong with the iPhone 4 — the very message Apple was trying to counter with that very press conference.

Third, Apple’s decision to call out rivals for having the same attenuation issues may have made sense on paper, but in practice it also largely backfired. It led some of those other companies to defend themselves (like RIM). This also perpetuated the story.

Worse, Apple kept posting more of these rival attenuation videos even after the press conference was long over. Each one of these also kept reigniting dying flames. Apple seems to have realized this last week when they removed all traces of the videos from their website. But then that too became a story.

So this really is the story that won’t die. But it’s not because everyone is so outraged at the issue itself — it’s because Apple keeps bringing it to the forefront with all of these related moves.

To put it more clearly: this story will eventually die — but it should have already, were it not for Apple.

[photo: flickr/timmezies]

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