The White iPhone 4

The White iPhone 4

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Does Consumer Reports Have an Anti-Apple Agenda?

While this line of stories continues to trigger my gag reflex, it just won't die.  Today, consumer reports went further in its criticism of iPhone 4.  In a new blog post, Consumer Reports states that Apple is obliged to "offer a product that works consistently and reliably out of the box."  The post seems also to suggest that consumers ought to return their iPhone 4s.  While yesterday I posted that Consumer Reports was a respectable review agency, and that their methods were scientific, their blog post today has shaken that respect, and a statement by an electromagnetic engineer currently working as a tech blogger casts doubt on the credibility of their testing.

1. Consumer Reports' Conclusions Are Irrational

I was initially impressed with the scientific nature of Consumer Reports' examination of iPhone 4.  It seemed detached and disinterested.  It seemed as if they were just trying to release an objective report coupled with a rational recommendation.  However, it seems I might have been wrong.

The antenna issue, which their unscientific (I'll get to that later) testing confirmed, we all know is there.  And they originally concluded that the issue could cause dropped calls and lost data connection in low reception areas.  They originally contended that because of the issue, they couldn't recommend the iPhone 4.  Not the conclusion that I would have reached, but not irrational.  Well, today, rationality has been flung out the window for sensationalism.

Their post today starts by functionally declaring that Apple's iPhone 4 doesn't work "consistently and reliably" out of the box, and support this claim with their "scientific" testing and a body of anecdotal evidence.  How they got from confirming an antenna issue to making sweeping claims about the consistency and reliability of all iPhone 4s sold is a mystery to me.  They only tested three sample phones.  While that is a sample sufficient to conclude that some units have an antenna issue, three out of the nearly two million sold comprises a sample size of 0.00015%.  Hardly a sample that can claim universality. 

Moreover, their body of anecdotal evidence is also inconsistent.  While there are some reports of people dropping calls and having data issues allegedly due to the antenna problem, there are also reports of people who note the drop in bars but have no functionality losses, or people who can't even replicate the drop in bars.  There is also no noted mad rush to return iPhone 4s.  Consequently, it's probably fair to assume that iPhone 4s are working "conisistently and reliably" for most people who bought them.  I don't know about you, but I certainly wouldn't continue to use something that didn't work, no matter how cool it was or who designed it.  That's just not reasonable.

2. Their Methods Were Unscientific

I was initially impressed by several aspects of Consumer Reports' tests.  First, that they used a RF isolation room.  This would seem rational, as it would block out interference from other sources, ruling out external causes.  They also broadcast their own dummy cellular signal from a base station in the isolation room.  Another rational step, considering an isolation room would definitely interfere with AT&T's reception, and it would allow them to modulate signal strength in a controlled manner.  This, to the layperson, sounds like a science experiment.  You can almost see the guys in white coats milling around this place, pocket protectors, thick glasses and all.

However, an electromagnetic engineer by the name of Bob Egan, who is currently a technology blogger and Global Head of Research & Chief Analyst at the TowerGroup (according to CNET), posted a massive critique of Consumer Reports' method, and his conclusions weren't flattering.  Essentially, they did the testing all wrong.

First, they should have used an anechoic chamber.  That's a step further than a RF isolation chamber because it prevents signal inside the chamber from bouncing around and creating its own noise.  Second, they should have kept the base station outside the room and piped in the signal, again, I assume, to keep it from creating noise in the room.  It also seems that their tests are so unscientific that it doesn't even allow for a conclusion that the design is fatally flawed, as part of the reception problem could be software related.  According to Mr. Egan, Consumer Reports' testing doesn't rule that out.

This is rendered more problematic by the fact that their results sound scientific.  This illusion of scientific rigor is sufficient to entice those who are not experts to believe the result is valid less critically than if Consumer Reports just came out and made bald claims based on anecdotal evidence.  Which is actually what they've done.  It was good enough to fool me for a bit.  Some people might be permanently swayed by such pseudoscience.

3.  Their Tone Is Aggitated and Unprofessional

In the first piece, Consumer Reports' tone was detached.  But today, their tone is aggressive.   It seems to suggest that customers ought to return their iPhone 4s, making certain to highlight the 30-day return policy at the end of the article, and stating:
"But for those who prefer to keep their iPhone, we encourage Apple to step forward soon with a remedy that fixes the confirmed antenna issue, and not one that requires additional consumer expense." (Emphasis added).
In today's post, they also highlight their duct tape fix, which looking back, seemed like an odd choice since others have resolved the problem with clear scotch tape.  The duct tape, not trimmed to size and globbed onto the corner of the phone unceremoniously in the Consumer Reports video, was in hindsight clearly for dramatic effect.

It seems Consumer Reports is trying to make the problem look worse than it is.

Whether this is for "consumer advocacy" purposes, namely trying to encourage action by Apple through media pressure, or for the advertising revenue that only controversy can bring, remains to be seen.  The one thing we know for sure, however, is that Consumer Reports' study of the iPhone 4 has its own design flaws, and they may be fatal.

That said, I believe all of this nonsense will still likely push Apple into some sort of product-recall-like situation.  Whether it's a full recall, a quiet "replace as complaints arise" fix (see yesterday evening's post), or an open offer to come in and have a hydrophobic coating applied or grab a free bumper, it seems to me that the media aren't going to let this thing go as a minor problem.  If Apple wants them to shut up, it's going to have to make a show of fixing the defect, no matter how minor it is.

Will it cause white iPhone 4 to be further delayed?  That has yet to be seen.

UPDATE:  Another tech blog, this time at Information Week, has taken this story and blown it further out of proportion, this time with a cringe-worthy cliche.  InfoWeek has started calling the antenna issue, wait for it...


I know.  Lame.  Weak.  Insipid.  Someone should execute the writer and the editor that approved it.  It does, however, remind me of a funny article I read on cracked once.  Find it here, and read Number 4 closely.


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  2. The one thing we know for sure, however, is that Consumer Reports' study of the iPhone 4 has its own design flaws, and they may be to jailbreak iphone 4