Why Apple's Bad Week May Be Good News for iPhones

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Take heart, iPhone 4 early adopters: you get a free case for your phone courtesy of Steve Jobs, even as Apple's chief denied that there was anything wrong with the phone inside.

The decision came in response to mounting pressure over what has been portrayed as a flaw in the phone's antenna. Free cases aside, Apple denied that its latest iPhone had any problems or hardware glitches that fall outside the realm of what we can expect from smartphones.

Apple may not have copped to problems with the phone -- in fact, Jobs mounted a spirited defense of its excellence -- but the company did note that smartphones, as a category, have problems as devices for making phone calls.

"This is life in the smartphone world," Steve Jobs reportedly said at a small conference in Cupertino. "Phones aren't perfect."

Boy, they sure aren't. While quantitative data is difficult to find, it certainly seems like making a phone is harder than it was in 2007, as if we've passed the point of Peak Voice Connectivity. 

To be fair, it hasn't always been clear that smartphones needed to make calls well. It might sound ridiculous, but texting, web-browsing, Twittering, and gaming had come to define devices formerly used exclusively for one-to-one voice communication. Voice calls had been relegated to secondary importance for consumers, or so it seemed.

But the outcry over the antenna issue -- and the mushroom cloud of discontent it stirred up as people voiced concerns over persistent problems of dropped calls and poor reception -- may have revealed something important about what consumers want. We're witnessing the social reshaping of a technology.

Yes, people want the bells and whistles and good battery life and a bright screen. And maybe they don't want a big telescoping antenna popping out of the top of their phones. But they are tired of not being able to make phone calls with a device that nominally was built for that purpose.

Maybe it's time to direct Apple's (and RIM's and Nokia's...) considerable R&D and engineering resources to restoring basic voice communication service. Maybe people actually want their phones to be phones.

"Form follows failure." That's Duke University engineer Henry Petroski's quick summation of the history of technology. "The form of made things is always subject to change in response to their real or perceived shortcomings, their failures to function properly," Petroski wrote in The Evolution of Useful Things

Apple's press conference today was both a defense of its particular phone and an admission that smartphones, as a category, have a problem. Jobs illustrated the point by showing several other smartphones losing reception when held in particular ways. What that said to me was that the industry, in trying to make the sleekest, most beautiful product, had decided to sacrifice some reception performance.

Up until recently, most grumbling about the iPhones' problems making calls was directed at Apple's exclusive wireless carrier AT&T. What Antennagate revealed was that perhaps Apple was not optimizing its products for the best possible reception. Perhaps it was a choice to drive down the cost of the device or increase battery life or any number of trade-offs. It may have even seemed reasonable, given the trends in how their customers were using the phones.

But now that the gadget world's attention is focused on Apple's apparent antenna failure, and that noise is loud enough to drive Apple's stock price down, perhaps more corporate energy will be directed at making iPhones the standard for reception.

At least, that's the way Petroski would expect the technological development to go, as it has for everything from forks and paperclips to nuclear plants. Bad breeds good, and certainly this week has been bad for Apple.

"Almost everything about technology, to me, is a response to a negative. Something isn't working right. Something doesn't look right. Something doesn't perform right," Petroski told me. "And you try to remove that negative quality and that change is presumably an improvement. But then you release the new and improved product and people find faults with it. Because nothing is perfect. You always have competing constraints."

So, don't be surprised if Apple starts to privilege reliable callmaking. Maybe phone calls are coming back.

UPDATE 8:45 PM EST: Almost right on cue, Nokia came out with a statement implying that Apple may have favored the form of its phones over their antennas' performance. And Nokia, by contrast, does not. "Nokia has invested thousands of man hours in studying human behavior, including how people hold their phones for calls, music playing, web browsing and so on," the company said. "As you would expect from a company focused on connecting people, we prioritize antenna performance over physical design if they are ever in conflict."

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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