Free iPhone 4 bumpers for signal problem but did Apple pre-empt the issue?

Apple's much hyped iPhone 4 went on sale in the UK, US and some European countries on Thursday, but some customers are reporting signal issues with the latest handset.

Steve Jobs' first reply to the issue was somewhat arrogant and void of any responsibility. "Just avoid holding it that way" he said in a reply to a customer email. The problem occurs when you grip the phone in your left hand, bridging both sides of the black strip in the metal band around the phone. Apple's PR outfit tried to play down the issue by claiming "gripping any mobile phone will result in some attenuation of its antenna performance." Apple's official response is to "use one of many available cases" to halt the issue. 

Apple is reportedly handing out free iPhone 4 bumpers to customers in the UK who return to Apple stores and complain about the issue. However, did Apple preempt this problem by manufacturing the bumpers? We only have to take a look back at the brief history of the iPhone to answer this question.

Apple famously lost an iPhone 4 prototype device in a bar in California. Gadget website Gizmodo paid $5,000 for the device and reported at the time that the prototype was enclosed in a case making it look like a 3GS. Jobs confirmed the leak at the Digital D8 conference recently and explained that Apple has to complete outside real world testing to test signal strength etc. Various reports across the web suggest that cases and Apple's own bumpers halt the signal issue. Is it possible that Apple didn't spot the issue during real world testing due to the case it was hiding the iPhone 4 in?

Flash forward to June 7, Apple's big iPhone announcement day. Jobs demonstrated the iPhone 4 using wi-fi to load the New York Times website. Unfortunately the demo failed as the iPhone 4 failed to load the page correctly. Jobs appears to be holding the device in his left hand so was he holding it wrong? Apple also announced the bumpers for iPhone 4. Bumpers are small rubber enclosures that fit around the metal band on the outside of the iPhone 4. Bumpers mark the first time in the iPhone's history that Apple has manufactured a case accessory for the iPhone. Why start with a rubber band that goes around the outside of the device and doesn't protect the screen like most other cases on the market?

Apple iPhone 4 bumpers currently retail for £25 ($29) and on launch day were only available in black, coloured versions will not ship until mid-July. This would indicate that the creation of bumpers was a last minute decision by Apple, perhaps after it was too late to rectify the signal issues with the first batch of iPhone 4 devices.

At the time of writing the issue appears to be widespread with many main stream media outlets also covering the problem. Walt Mossberg mentions the issue in his review of the iPhone 4. "On at least six occasions during my tests, the new iPhone was either reporting “no service” or searching for a network while the old one, held in my other hand, was showing at least a couple of bars. Neither Apple nor AT&T could explain this. The iPhone 4 quickly recovered in these situations, showing service after a few seconds, but it was still troubling." Out of three iPhone 4 devices that Neowin purchased on launch day, two have the fault which is easily reproducible. It's not yet clear how Apple plans to tackle the faulty units but free bumpers will not stem the noise.

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