5 things Apple should do to kill iPhone 4 Death Grip

On July 16, Apple is holding an unspecified media event about iPhone. The presumption is that the company will finally address the so-called Death Grip, where bodily contact with the lower left-hand side of iPhone 4 causes the signal indicator to decline. I'm assuming that's the purpose of the event and here offer up five things Apple should do there to handle the public relations problem.

First, I'll offer some brief analysis. Apple should never have let Death Grip get so out of hand. Apple marketing is as good as -- often better than -- its products. The company masterfully generates good perceptions. But Death Grip seems to have squeezed the life out of Apple's PR and marketing staff and CEO Steve Jobs. Apple's lack of assertive action shows that there is some validation to blogger, Consumer Reports, customer and journalist reactions to reported antenna problems. Something is wrong. But is it really all that bad?

I have no problem creating the Death Grip, by simply holding iPhone 4 in my left hand with palm pressed against the lower left-hand side of the device. But I haven't had any more calling problems with iPhone 4 than its predecessors -- and that's living in an area where AT&T reps admit reception is notoriously bad. Elsewhere, I find signal strength improved and that Death Grip is not easily reproduced in areas with strong signals.

Based on my own experience, which includes using smartphones for more than five years, and reading reports from or talking to other iPhone 4 owners, I believe that Apple's problem is more perception than reality. Yes, signal drops when iPhone is held in the Death Grip where carrier signal is weak but overall performance is on par with or better than other smartphones.

Apple's choice of a Friday media event is unusual and probably quite deliberate. Fridays are typically slow news days, which means Apple's iPhone 4 response will lead the news pretty much everywhere tomorrow and throughout the weekend. If the response is good enough, the buzz should help Apple reset perceptions about iPhone 4 -- or at least change the tone of blog posts or news articles. That Apple still can't meet iPhone 4 demand is evidence enough that lots of people still want the handset, regardless of the negative reports about antenna performance.

Apple's objective isn't protecting sales but resetting perceptions, by:

  • Assuring shareholders that iPhone 4 is not a fundamentally, flawed device, and that it will continue to sell well -- better than its predecessors.
  • Taking the edge off the negative news reports, which can't be much positive without a more official response from Apple.

With that introduction, here's what I would do tomorrow if working for Apple. In order of importance:

1. Release iOS 4.1, or whatever update is necessary to properly align the signal indicator and quash any other radio-related bugs (Bluetooth would be a good start). If Apple is smart, the update will pack goodies, like FaceTime over 3G capabilities, that will excite the masses and shift focus away from Death Grip.

2. Bring out certified antenna engineers -- one to three of them -- to discuss how the iPhone 4 radios work and to do comparisons with other smartphones. Apple should assert that iPhone 4's weak signal performance isn't unique but that because of the phone's popularity, bloggers, Consumer Reports and journalists have amplified a small and common problem with antenna placement and reception. The engineers should also show how the antenna design boosts telephony performance more often than hinders it.

3. Offer iPhone 4 owners freebees -- Bumpers, $30 credit for case (or other accessories) or some other incentive, like free MobileMe for one year. Apple should not give away cases, because of the potential negative effects on iPhone partners. The freebees would be simply goodwill, available to those customers requesting them, with Apple admitting no fault.

4. Reveal the number of iPhone 4 returns. I haven't seen long return lines at my two local Apple Stores or heard about many iPhone 4 owners -- even those complaining about Death Grip -- seeking refunds. Apple can say that in unprecedented disclosure, the kind no public company would risk doing, here are the number of iPhone 4 returns. If the number is small, as I expect, Apple could assert that even with all the bad Death Grip publicity people love their iPhone 4s.

5. Emphatically state that there will be no iPhone 4 recall. As long as Apple lets the topic be, someone will write about the possibility of a recall. Apple should squash all speculation on the subject. The announcement would be the right time to reveal availability of white iPhone 4s, increases in production capacity and smartphone availability in more countries. Rather than recall, Apple is expanding sales -- sure sign of its confidence in iPhone 4.

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