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."