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Consumer Reports is off the rails on iPhone 4

Consumer Reports has completely lost their way and is shamelessly pandering for traffic trying to maintain a controversy in a nakedly self promotional and intellectually dishonest way.

See this Consumer Reports blog post. Note how many internal links there are from this post and, when you follow those, how many more times they cross link between ongoing coverage of this issue. Good SEO strategy there but you have to ask yourself why, for a site with so little actual content outside their pay wall, would they spend so much effort maintaining buzz and coverage of this issue for the portions of their site that are exposed to public search indexing and linking?

Why, if the antenna design’s allegedly mortal wound to iPhone 4 is so dire as to merit this coverage, is it still selling like hotcakes? It’s not as if consumers aren’t aware of the alleged issue. Why would Consumer Reports burn so much time and attention on this issue?

This is  the image Consumer Reports uses to promote joining their fee-for-access Smart Phone Ratings.  See that unmistakable jauntily raked portrait of the iPhone? CR is more than happy to use an image of Apple’s product to promote their commercial services.

CR’s own review describes iPhone 4 as their ‘highest rated’ (Paywall precludes linking but this CNET confirms what I have observed in looking at CR review.) but they say, as quoted by CNET. “Putting the onus on any owners of a product to obtain a remedy to a design flaw is not acceptable to us,” Consumer Reports said. “We therefore continue not to recommend the iPhone 4.” Now, that’s a fine argument if they were being consumer advocates for existing customers with a problem that Apple refuses to remedy. The problem is, Apple has offered three remedies: Liberal refund policy, free case (even offering third party cases) and a software patch to change the way iPhone 4 reports signal strength to better conform with industry norms.

This is hardly a case where the great white knight consumer advocate must step in to save the poor abused consumer. Where is CR’s activism when it comes to broadband pricing? Where is this level of ‘help the little guy zeal’ when it comes to all those Android phones that carriers lock down and clog with bloatware? Why isn’t CR working to let customers have a better Android phone as Google’s latest free-but–often-carrier-blocked OS upgrade would give them?

Consumer Report’s activism here is entirely self serving since other than Apple redesigning the phone, CR’s expectations can’t be met and, given what Apple has already done, seem deliberately designed keep CR getting coverage and traffic for hammering on the issue.  Apple will give you your money back for up to 30 days if you don’t like your iPhone 4. CR wanted a recall and a redesign. When there is no safety issue in play here, why recall a product it seems most customers are happy with when you can offer a liberal 30 day return policy for those who are unhappy? Perhaps because if you ask for the utterly unreasonable and irrational you can keep getting attention for it?

Now, this demand may seem reasonable; “Product is flawed, company should redesign” but it’s utterly ignorant and disingenuous. Worst of all, it perpetuates a level of ignorance in consumers that undermines CR’s own stated mission which begins: “Consumers Union (CU) is an expert, independent, nonprofit organization whose mission is to work for a fair, just, and safe marketplace for all consumers and to empower consumers to protect themselves.” because it utterly ignores the truth:

I’m not an expert in cell phone design. I am an expert in managing technical compromises. It has been a core aspect of all my professional life for decades. CR claims to employ technical experts and I am sure they do but this is a simple and obvious fact:

iPhone 4′s antenna design is an engineering compromise akin to engineering compromises necessary for all consumer products, hell, all products.  It is completely valid for CR not to like and to tell their audience they don’t like the way Apple came down in the trade-offs. It is completely valid, even, to call iPhone 4 a crap phone because, in CR’s estimation, the balance struck in the inevitable engineering compromises makes the iPhone 4 an overpriced unreliable piece of garbage. They want to say that, fine. I’d disagree. Loudly, but fine. If you don’t want an iPhone 4. Don’t buy one.

What CR’s coverage does is fail to inform the consumer of the facts and demands Apple do magic to have CR get their cake and eat it too. An honest discussion of the issue must include the reality of the trade-offs Apple made when designing the phone as they did.

Apple built iPhone 4 with the frame of the phone made of stainless steel in two pieces and exposed outside the phone as a means of (at least):

  • Providing better performance under most usage conditions.
  • Increasing the rigidity and durability of the chassis.
  • Decreasing attenuation of signal caused by the chassis materials outside the antenna.
  • Adhering to regulatory requirements for RF radiation and carrier expectations.
  • Increasing internal volume of the device to accommodate as large a battery as possible within the dimensions of the phone to maximize battery life.
  • Building a design that would attract and satisfy customers aesthetically. Yes. This matters.
  • Using more recyclable materials in the manufacturing of the phone.
  • Substantially simpler build and service procedures which lower costs and, therefore, prices. (While still unsupported by Apple, changing your own battery in iPhone 4 has gone from nerve-wracking and risky case prying in prior models to two screws easy-peasy in iPhone 4.)

Another effect of the design is that, under some circumstances, the user’s hand can bridge the mechanical gap between the cellular radio antenna and the Bluetooth/Wi-Fi/GPS antenna which, under some conditions, can degrade signal strength.

Any honest and ‘expert’ coverage of this issue would recognize that Apple made a balance decision between those goals and the risk of signal strength degradation under some conditions. Instead, CR relentlessly exploits this issue to attract attention to itself in the interest of increased sales of their product. This non-profit’s primary revenue comes not from foundations, endowment or donations but from sales of their content (Consumer’s Union 2009 annual report PDF link). Just because they don’t pay taxes doesn’t mean generating sales revenue isn’t a driving goal.

Their blog, the extent of their coverage and their own hypocrisy about rating it highest and yet not recommending it all the while using a picture of iPhone to promote their fee-based service are clearly indicative of self promotion trumping mission and integrity. It’s time to call them out and demand they either be accountable to their own mission or shut up.

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Facts:

“iPhone Return Policy: If you are not fully satisfied with your iPhone purchase, you can return your undamaged iPhone within 30 days of purchase for a full refund. If you return your iPhone within 30 days of purchase, you will not be charged a restocking or early termination fee. The iPhone must be returned with your original receipt in its original packaging, including any accessories, manuals, and documentation.”

  • My own pre-iPhone non-smart cell phones (Motorola Razr’s [several, they never lasted more than 9 months] Sony Erricson T637′s. [Two. The first met with an untimely demise due to accident]) have all exhibited variable reception depending on how they were held with the exception of my first cell phone which had a pull-out whip antenna.
  • Various examples of current model smart phones have been shown by independent sources to exhibit signal degradation depending on grip.
  • Owner documentation from the manufacturers of numerous phones warn that grip will effect signal strength including: Nokia for their E52 and N97 “Your device may have internal and external antennas. Avoid touching the antenna area unnecessarily while the antenna is transmitting or receiving. Contact with antennas affects the communication quality and may cause a higher power level during operation and may reduce the battery life.” HTC and Droid manuals offer similar advice.
  • Apple has this to say about their testing programs.
  • Apple’s official response to ‘Antennagate’ was this press conference.
  • Disclosure: I own Apple stock that, based on today’s valuation, is less than 5% of my net worth and was originally purchased more than a decade ago.

Apple themselves played the following video clip: If you don’t want an iPhone 4, don’t buy it. If you bought one and you don’t like it, bring it back. at that conference and that about covers it.

***UPDATE*** It occurs to me there is one engineering change that would tilt the balance away PARTLY from death-grip risk and have only minimal effect on the other side of the balance. I’m going to stay mum on the specific idea but I’ll give it a codename so, if it happens, you’ll know I had it in mind: sliver. Bear in mind, if Apple does it, (or a third party and there’s another hint, it could be done by a third party) that won’t make the current design a bad choice by Apple or a ‘hosing of their customers’ it will just mean the design evolved as most do.

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