Friday, July 2, 2010

Oh, that makes it better, Apple

Apple has posted an open letter explaining the precipitous drop in signal strength when their new iPhone 4 is manhandled inappropriately. Jobs’ advice to the “Doctor, it hurts when I do this” has been, of course, to “don’t do this”.

Upon investigation, we were stunned to find that the formula we use to calculate how many bars of signal strength to display is totally wrong. Our formula, in many instances, mistakenly displays 2 more bars than it should for a given signal strength. For example, we sometimes display 4 bars when we should be displaying as few as 2 bars. Users observing a drop of several bars when they grip their iPhone in a certain way are most likely in an area with very weak signal strength, but they don’t know it because we are erroneously displaying 4 or 5 bars. Their big drop in bars is because their high bars were never real in the first place.

Yup. Seems the same reason that one Mars-bound robot mission augured into a planet, or the reason the stock market dropped 1000 points in a minute, made it past Apple quality control and into the market this release. Added to that is a tinge of “it’s your fault”.

We will issue a free software update within a few weeks that incorporates the corrected formula. Since this mistake has been present since the original iPhone, this software update will also be available for the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 3G.

Wait, make that ALL releases… for the last couple of years. Well, thanks for fixing that now.

So what does Apple’s explanation tell us?

Maybe Apple is poor at engineering, testing and quality control.  They didn’t realize for 3 years that the phone function of their phone wasn’t performing as the screen proclaimed. I spent the last year cursing Apple, AT&T, Jesus, nature, myself, my cat for walking too close, the wind, the lack of wind… any pattern I could find that would explain why I would go from 5 bars to dropped call every minute during a conversation. Turns out I lived in a fallout shelter, but the imagineers who imagineered the # of bars display were giving me shotty data.

So, was Apple really just grossly negligent in its assessment of signal strength, or was it protecting its ill-advised exclusivity deal with AT&T when the carrier was unable to support the heavy load?

Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.

- Napolean, 1800… or so

I’d like to believe that Apple didn’t deliberately doctor the bars to make me feel like AT&T was doing a better job than it really was upholding their end of an exclusive data contract. But, the corollary to this quote, in this case, should probably be:

Never underestimate the willingness of the vested to overlook incompetence when it works to their advantage.

- Brett, just now

I’m not sure if I can take the “Whoops, we got the algorithm wrong… it’s very complicated and technical, don’t worry we fixed it now” excuse as full forgiveness. It’s well played spin, probably to be eaten up by most of their existing and potential customers. They make compelling products; quite pretty and well loved.

I’ve had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Apple over the last year. I have an iPhone 3G and a used MacBook Pro (which you’re experiencing right now). They have their awesome points, and their glaring pitfalls.

The aesthetic part is pretty on the outside, but on closer inspection, it’s typically a jumble of hastily-wrapped parts basically performing their function long enough to make the user happy. I could cite several examples of this in specificity, ranging from attempting to do iPhone programming in Objective C, to the impenetrable iTunes interface, to watching my friend attempt to replace a drive in an MacBook, to repeatedly trying to make a phone call to my parents, to the ever-slowening of the iPhone OS, to the computer I’m typing on right now…


Those lines on the screen are always there, but move every time I type a letter. It’s apparently one of many known issues with the MacBook Pro laptops of that generation. There are sites and forums dedicated to cataloging these kinds of problems. Even though it’s on a heat-dissipating pad, it’s burning my hands and creating artifacts from the heat-fatigued GPU. Worse, my iPhone 3G suddenly refuses to join any WiFi network, thus forcing me to burden AT&T’s already stretched 3G antennas beyond their abilities.

I’m not sure where I land here. From a design standpoint, they make a really nice box. It basically does what I need it to do most of the time. Stray one bit from that, or just wait long enough for the components to fall apart, and you’re just boned.


60% of the time it works, every time.

Full disclosure: I’m a Microsoft employee, currently doing some work in the mobile space, though my thoughts here are completely divorced from any and all Microsoft activities, statements, positions, gambles, Kins, cats, or bacons. I’m paid by them for my engineering expertise, though not endorsed to opine on the state of the industry.