Will telcos have Apple on their faces?

Last Friday, Apple was forced to acknowledge an embarrassing flaw in the iPhone operating system, a flaw present since the release of the original iPhone. As embarrassing as this is for Apple,  some mobile network operators may also find this latest development leaves them with … Apple on their faces.

When Apple launched the iPhone 4, stories  emerged of users experiencing a drop-off in the number of bars of reception when they held the outside antenna band in a certain way. Speculation arose  that there was an issue with the design of the antenna and Apple created something of a stir with it’s initial response to the problem – hold the phone differently or get a case that covers the antenna.

But as Apple investigated the issue further, they made what they acknowledge was a rather “simple and surprising” discovery that impacts all iPhones, not just iPhone 4:

” 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.

To fix this, we are adopting AT&T’s recently recommended formula for calculating how many bars to display for a given signal strength. The real signal strength remains the same, but the iPhone’s bars will report it far more accurately, providing users a much better indication of the reception they will get in a given area.” (Apple media release, 02/07/2010)

In short – iPhones have been overstating signal strength,  typically by two bars.

Whilst this is certainly egg on Apple’s face… it could also lead to some awkward moments for  mobile network operators  such as AT&T.

Mobile operators who in the past may have been able to blame poor voice or data performance on the iPhone,  claiming that the signal strength showed the network coverage was fine… will potentially find they have one less excuses for poor coverage once the accuracy of the iPhone signal strength indicator is resolved.

Whilst Apple’s software engineers and testers are probably experiencing similar red faces to Google’s Streetview team, Apple’s open and honest acknowledgement of the issue  will probably help calm the online storm around the iPhone’s  reception issue. The interesting question will be whether Apple’s fix will create a whole new set of  challenges for mobile operators.

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