Monday, July 12, 2010

iPhone 4 sensor issue

[see UPDATE at end]

Though I've heard much about the infamous iPhone 4 antenna problem, I hadn't known about a proximity sensor issue affecting the phone as well. Marco Arment, a respected developer and blogger, cites these as the two major flaws that will place "a huge asterisk" next to any discussion of the phone's quality.

Arment bluntly concludes that although a recall to fix the hardware is the only solution,
I seriously doubt that the same Apple that wrote that giant-middle-finger response to the antenna problem would swallow their own pride enough to admit that they were wrong and conduct a recall on their flagship product.

I'm sorry to say, he's probably right. Steve Jobs (and the public relations management for any problem of this magnitude is going to be under Jobs' control) isn't going to acknowledge that this is a design defect. He's going to assume Apple can respond the same way it responded to the debacle of the third-generation iPod: by doing nothing.

The third-generation iPod boasted four touch-sensitive buttons in a row over the touch-sensitive scroll wheel. The four buttons (Reverse, Menu, Play/Pause, and Forward) were identical in size, and because every iPod before (and since) placed the buttons on or around the scroll wheel, it took time for a user to get used to the non-standard placement. More troublingly, the touch-sensitive buttons were ridiculously easy to press by accident if your hand brushed the front of the device, yet they required actual contact with the skin to use. That meant that controlling the iPod within your pocket was pretty much a non-starter: there were no physical buttons that could be pressed through fabric, and if you stuck your hand into your pocket you ran the risk of triggering one or more buttons while groping for the right one. (Yes, I owned one. I suffered with it for four years.)

A bad, some would say terrible, user interface -- kind of a black eye for a company that prides itself on getting user interaction right. Yet nothing was done. A little more than a year later, the fourth-generation iPod was released and the 3rd was quietly forgotten.

Arguably, the iPhone 4 issues are worse from a public-relations standpoint because the iPhone is so much higher-profile than the iPod was in its day. Technically, the issues are probably worse too, since adapting to the third-gen iPod's quirks was relatively simple to do, while working around the phone's problems is much more awkward if you're experiencing them.

But that's the key: not everyone is experiencing these problems. So even though the phone's problems are worse, they aren't ubiquitous. That's going to militate against publicly fixing anything.

My guess is that Jobs is going to assume Apple can slide on iPhone 4's problems as it did on the third-gen iPod's, and in a year or so, when the next iPhone is released, all will be forgiven and forgotten.

(Note that mysteriously activating faceplates are not unique to iPhone 4. I've experienced them, and continue to do so, on my first-gen iPhone. I don't know if the root cause is the same. Oh, and my cheek tends to hit the Mute button rather than hanging the call up.)

UPDATE: Whoops: Apple responded.

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