SPECIAL REPORT: iPhone 4 launch week recap

PCR rounds up the web coverage of Apple iPhone 4 launch week
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On the 21st of June, three days before the launch of the iPhone 4, Apple released iOS 4 update to a range of devices capable of being upgraded including the iPhone 3G, 3GS and the iPod Touch. Previously known as iPhone OS, the 80-odd MB update needs to be downloaded via iTunes. Perhaps unsurprisingly Apple’s servers struggled under the rush of eager downloaders.

The update process wasn’t a fast one, to say the least, but generally speaking it was free from any major hitches although there was some confusion relating to the which features of iOS 4 would actually be enabled on the earlier devices. While the new iPhone 4 is equipped with 512MB of RAM , the original iPhone 3 has only 128MB so it’s not too surprising that it can’t run the modern update as well as the latest hardware. 

On the aging iPhone 3 the major casualty is the much vaunted iOS 4 multitasking feature but in general the new OS still proved to be a bit of a stretch for the aging hardware with reports of sluggishness common, so much so that guides appeared explaining how to reverse the update to restore performance. Lucky owners of the relatively recent iPhone 3GS had no such problems with the newer equipped with the memory and CPU performance necessary to run the new OS smoothly.

The 23rd of June marked simultaneous launch in major territories of the iPhone 4. In the US, CNET documented the launch at the major Apple stores across the country with many hundreds of people queuing up from the previous night. Demand had been extraordinarily strong with 600,000 preorders with US carrier AT&T saying that the demand was 10 times that of last year’s iPhone 3GS. Apple had sold more than a million of the 3GS in 3 days so it already seemed likely the iPhone 4 was likely to break records.

The New York Apple store told would-be customers just before 1PM that they would need a pre-order or no dice. Interestingly CNET noted that most of the customers had opted for the “bumper”, this in advance of reception problems coming to light. Incredibly 77% of owners were reported to be iPhone upgrades. Loyalty among the Apple faithful was evidently as strong as ever. 

The UK being uncharacteristically lucky with the weather (good news for Glastonbury , iPhone day got off to a sunny start with an estimated 600 people queuing up at the Oxford Street Apple store at 7am and with numbers swelling to an estimated 1,000 strong by 8am when the store opened. In London it took until 9.30 when Apple store staff informed the queue that if they hadn’t pre-ordered they would be out of luck. This would be the first sign of the chronic iPhone 4 stock shortage.

Details of UK tariffs had been made known a week prior to the launch for Orange, Vodafone and O2 but on launch day networks 3 and Tesco Mobile released plan pricing as well. In the face of an acute iPhone inventory shortage O2 decides that it can only sell iPhone 4s to existing customers. 

Unfortunately for Apple, iPhone 4 day wasn’t just dominated by news of long queues of eager fans but rather a series of reports emerged of recurring problems new owners were having with their devices. 

Much having been made of the virtually indestructible iPhone 4 screen at launch time, some unlucky punters discovered that the rear of the phone had not been as sturdily crafted. One report documented a shattered case from a drop of just one foot. Fortunately it seems like the damage is just the glass which ought to be replaceable. 

Shortly after reports emerged that some stunning high resolution ‘Retina’ displays were marred by yellow spots and bands. Apple support staff had later told customers the problem is due to an adhesive that had not evaporated sufficiently and supposedly told at least some owners that it ought to clear up in a few days.

It was, of course, the iPhone 4’s antenna which caused the greatest storm of all. The decision to expose the elements of the antenna to the elements had been marketed as improving signal during the iPhone launch and indeed it should be noted that the iPhone 4’s reception has repeatedly come in for praise in the various reviews compared to previous phones. However, if held in the left hand, it’s possible to bridge between antenna conductors with catastrophic reception degradation.

The web explodes with commentary on the issue, not helped in the slightest by the terse and now infamous e-mail response from none other than Apple CEO Steve Jobs to an upset customer advising that they “Just avoid holding it that way.” It’s hard to view the result as anything less than a PR disaster, not helped by the company’s own advertising material clearly showing the device held the “wrong way” and providing rich pickings for the rapidly developing Internet meme

Interestingly much of the press began to talk about how it was “south paws” that would be vulnerable. It’s true that the owner would generally need to hold the device in the left hand but surely most right-handed people hold their phone in their left hand? In addition to plenty of fair criticism the period also saw plenty of bandwagon jumping ill-informed commentary too. The British tabloid The Daily Mail had even been duped into running a story about an iPhone 4 recall based on a parody twitter from a fake Steve Jobs. 

Rival manufacturers also couldn’t resist lampooning Apple over the issue, first Motorola and then Nokia with a parody How do you hold your Nokia blog post. Answer: “Any way you like”. Again the issue probably wouldn’t have been as big as it was without Apple appearing to deny the problem existed, even issuing guidance to staff, as revealed by a leaked memo, which precluded any possibility of the fault being with Apple and stating outright that no free bumpers were be provided. 

Tech research outfit iSupply published a tear down of the internals of the iPhone 4 in which they described how the antenna design was part of an overall drive to maximize the use of physical space. iSupply’s report also gave some indication of the unusual complexity in the case design which might give some clue as to why Apple were not keen to address the issue when it apparently became aware of it prior to launch. Apple had even advertised three antenna design engineering positions the day of the launch.

Despite the heavy press coverage of the issues to date, Apple succeeded in selling an incredible 1.7 million iPhone 4s in the three days since launch. 

On the 29th of June another issue with the iPhone 4 appears, this time with the proximity sensor. The component is designed to disable the touch screen interface when making phone calls but reports surface of disconnecting calls and switching calls to speakerphone. While the issue surfaces late it quickly appears that there’s no easy fix such as returning the device for screen woes or fitting a case for the antenna. Some owners report needing to repeatedly reset the phone to get the sensor to work correctly leading to customers on Apple’s support forums expressing frustration and hopes for a patch to resolve the issue.

Eagle-eye observers note that Apple is stealthily dropping support for iOS 2 which is likely only to be a problem for iPod Touch owners that didn’t want to pay the $9.99 upgrade to iOS 3. It’s not clear if the free upgrade to iOS 4 will work for iPod Touch owners still on iOS 2, if it does then there’s effectively no real impact to the decision.

Adding to the bad news pile, problems emerge with the iMovie and while some sites are uncharitable about the issue, it’s likely this can be fixed by Apple in a software update. Leaping on software glitches on a brand new release begins to take on the tinge of a witch hunt. Evidence of software fixes has already been seen with a fix for a Microsoft Exchange sync issue being pushed out.

Third parties are also quickly warming to iOS 4 and issuing updates such as the Facebook client

Some of the issues might not be a disaster for all as Business Week reports the accessories market for the iPhone 4 gets a shot in the arm thanks to the antenna issue. While hardly ideal for iPhone 4 owners it looks like good news for retailers offering mobile accessories. 

Not a smooth week for the iPhone 4 launch then, but then this is a smartphone that boldly pushes the bar. Apple doesn’t ship products with anything like the same sort of frequency as other hardware manufacturers, so it has fewer opportunities to work out kinks in new technology on an incremental basis.

Had an earlier iPhone launch been troubled to this degree, the business impact upon Apple would not have been as great given the relative lack of competing smartphones. However with Android hot on the heals with handsets appearing in all shapes and sizes on all operators, bad PR along with the ongoing supply shortage has lead at least one analyst to claim the situation “certainly has done some damage to the Apple brand”.

We should, however, be mindful to retain perspective. 1.7 million iPhone 4s in three days is an astonishing demonstration of demand and with predictions of 21.7 million sales by year’s end, it seems unlikely that Apple will be crying into their beer just yet.

Image Source: Richard Masoner.

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