Apple's Real `Death Grip' Is on Its Customers: Rich Jaroslovsky

I feel so inadequate.

I’ve tried, Lord knows I’ve really tried. I read the blogs, watched the videos and followed the instructions, and I just can’t do it. I can’t make my iPhone 4 drop a call.

Now don’t get me wrong: It does drop calls, or fails to connect them in the first place, about as often as my iPhone 3GS used to. But it does so only when it feels like it, not when I try to make it. All that talk about how if you position the phone this way or that, place it in your hand just so, and cover the little black band just right, you can make the call fail -- well, you can’t prove it by me.

“Holding the iPhone 4 in certain ways does cause signal loss. But that’s the case with all cell phones,” Consumer Reports concluded after exploring the problem. At the risk of being branded an iPhone apologist, the whole “death grip” issue smells to me less like a critical product flaw than like a desire to knock tech’s current darling from its mile-high perch.

Apple Inc. is riding a winning streak of epic proportions. Ever since the launch of the iTunes Music Store turned the original iPod music player from success into phenomenon, the company has moved from triumph to triumph, including the iPhone, the iPod touch, and this year the iPad tablet computer. The only company to rival it is probably Walt Disney Co.’s Pixar unit -- which, coincidentally or not, was built by Apple Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs.

Heavy-Handed

Apple’s success, though, is increasingly breeding a reaction reminiscent of the scorn engendered by Microsoft Corp. in the late 1990s.

In part, that’s because Apple seeks to assure a quality experience for its customers by exerting an unusual level of control over how its products are used. But it has also on occasion crossed the line with tactics that appear heavy-handed or bullying, as with its efforts to purge the App Store of adult-themed software, or its response to the iPhone 4 prototype that went missing in a Silicon Valley bar. For all Apple’s fans, there seem to be a lot of people who’d love to see it stumble.

Hence the flap over the iPhone 4’s reception, which has marred what has otherwise been, by any imaginable measurement, a spectacularly successful rollout. Apple sold 1.7 million phones in the first three days after it went on sale June 24. By comparison, Google Inc. sold 135,000 of its much-hyped Nexus One phones in its first 2 1/2 months, according to Flurry Inc., a company that tracks smartphone use.

‘Totally Wrong’

The dropped-calls issue reared up in the blogosphere within hours of the phone’s debut. Supposedly, holding the phone in your left hand, covering the small black seam separating pieces of the phone’s new metal-rim antenna system, would cause the number of bars indicating signal strength to plunge, and the call to fail. Apple has owned up only to using a “totally wrong” formula for calculating how many signal-strength bars to display, a problem it says it will fix soon. In other words: All this time, service has been even worse than you thought.

My own experience with the iPhone 4 hasn’t been trouble- free. My first one showed no evidence of the improved battery life that Jobs touted when he unveiled the device earlier this year. To the contrary, I was unable to get through a business day of normal use on a charge, and the phone was frequently warm to the touch even when in standby. The Apple Store swapped the phone for another one that so far seems cooler and longer-lived.

No Difference

Further, if the iPhone 4’s new antenna was supposed to improve its performance as a phone, you have to conclude it failed. In two weeks of heavy use, mostly in midtown Manhattan and the New Jersey suburbs of New York, I’ve seen no significant difference compared with the 3GS in its ability to complete calls, or to maintain a connection without dropping it.

How much of that is because of the device, and how much is because of AT&T Inc.’s network, is a question we may not be able to answer until the iPhone makes its reported debut on the Verizon Wireless network next year. I frequently hear from non- U.S. iPhone users delighted at the reliability and clarity of their calls. On the other hand, many a user reports being unable to complete an iPhone call while someone using Research In Motion Ltd.’s BlackBerry was able to connect from the same spot over the same AT&T network.

In any event, I’ll keep trying to make my iPhone fail on my demand rather than its own whim. Wish me luck.

(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Rich Jaroslovsky in New York at rjaroslovsky@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.