Apple’s Secret Strategy at The iPhone 4 Press Conference
Apple dodged more than one bullet at their iPhone 4 Press Conference yesterday. Some that I think many people had not even seen coming. But that’s because by definition most industry observers, or journalists, are followers and not leaders. Being a leader is something that Apple very certainly is used to – and good at.
Some pundits went into the event secure in their own personal mind bubble that Steve knew about the issue with the iPhone 4, it wasn’t fixable, and he was a liar. Others went in equally sure that he didn’t know about it, and it could perhaps be fixed by software, but Apple were struggling with that task. Overall though, a very large percentage of all of them went in assuming that Apple would have to grovel their way out of this situation, offer some kind of mea culpa, recall the iPhone 4 (at least with some kind of voluntary return scheme) and then crawl away licking their wounds.
Unfortunately what a lot of the pundits, who themselves contributed to creating this 22 day circus forgot was that “Pride always comes before a fall”. They also forgot that Apple has said all along that if you don’t like the iPhone 4 you can return it within 30 days for a full refund.
Apple’s senior management wasn’t even on the same planet as most industry pundits when they entered the Press Conference. By that I mean that their perception of the issue was one based in reality, 22 days of hard work and investigation and several years of hard work prior to that. What it was certainly not based on was self-aggrandisation, a grubby search for page-views, or a self inflicted forced feedback loop of rumor and speculation feeding on itself in a piranha pool like frenzy.
The first bullet that Apple dodged was the amount of mileage that other manufacturers were planning to make out of “Antennagate”.
“Every Magic Trick consists of three parts, or acts.”
“The First part is called The Pledge. The Magician shows you something ordinary.”
So Steve started with the iPhone 4. He also softened us up with the now famous iPhone 4 Antenna song, and an admission that Apple makes mistakes.
Steve carefully orchestrated the way his monologue ran so that it led smoothly through a winding tail reenforcing just how good the iPhone 4 is at handling radio signals, and then arrived at a tantalising moment where he flirted with his own “pet theory” about why a minuscule number more calls have been recorded as dropped by AT&T on the iPhone 4 than on the iPhone 3GS.
With the dropped calls figure he gave us something which sounded like a negative, just briefly, before hinting at something a lot of people were salivating for – something free! And then he changed tack. That fleeting proposition seemed to be gone. So we listened all the more intently to what he had to say next…
In my own view the sampling for the iPhone 4 is so small by comparison to the 3GS it seems that comparing the two is irrelevant at this stage, whichever way you lean. But what it did do was put things in perspective and give Apple a really minor piece of bad “hard data” to take responsibility for, which it would later use as a reason to offer an appeasement to its customers.
As Steve continued to lecture us he dragged some of the iPhone 4’s main competitors into the room by the scruff of their necks, metaphorically; in the form of their handsets, and showed us their flaws also.
Now, in the UK it is illegal to produce adverts which criticise your competitors. At least it was the last time I checked. And I am pretty sure that although it used to go on in the US, it is now at least frowned upon, if not illegal in some states.
However, under the guise of a kind of public service announcement, or technical lecture, Steve Jobs spent about a third of his Press Conference showing us some of Apple’s leading competitors mobile devices dropping signals right in-front of our eyes. Just like the iPhone 4 has been reported as doing.
“The second act is called the turn. The Magician takes the ordinary something and makes it into something extraordinary.”
In one fell swoop he had created a global advert, sure to be replayed on news networks around the world, and streamed to people’s computers shortly after the Press Conference concluded. Levelling the playing field in Apple’s most important industry. Undoing harm, and putting previously falsely smug competitors on notice.
It is interesting to note that Apple got the video of the press conference up on its website in record time. And that there were clips from it playing on global news networks even before the Q&A immediately after the press conference had finished on the Apple campus.
This morning, instead of crowing about Apple’s troubles, as they were earlier in the week, Nokia and RIM are on the back foot and rushing to distribute their own Press Releases criticising Apple’s methods at the press conference. They’re in the offices emailing and faxing over the weekend! Apple is not. Apple’s competitors are now finding themselves doing their best to dispute the videos of their devices that Steve Jobs managed to get a global community looking at. But no-one, apart from tech. sites are picking any of this up. Because it’s not Apple, and it’s not interesting, and it’s the weekend now.
But back to the conference…
The second bullet that Apple dodged was the outcry that would come from third party iPhone 4 case manufacturers when they realised that Apple had just killed their business by giving away free Bumpers to a lot of their potential customers.
At the point where we all expected the “free Bumper” announcement I have already mentioned that Steve skilfully wheeled away and took us on another brief joy ride ride through how good the iPhone 4 is, just like that final twist on a roller coaster. And then he threw the free Bumper line out almost casually, as we were all looking the other way.
“But you wouldn’t clap yet because making something disappear isn’t enough. You have to bring it back.”
It was almost as if Jobs had watched “The Prestige” recently, and recalled perfectly how Michael Caine explained exactly the perfect steps a magicians trick should follow. (The quotes I am using are from that great movie, by the way.)
Now, something that had occurred to me a few days before the Press Conference, and one of the reasons I had my doubts about Apple giving out free Bumpers was that it could potentially alienate the entire third party product industry built up around the iPhone ecosystem.
Another reason that giving out Bumpers might be a bad idea is that I think it potentially opens a crack in Apple’s legal defence against the class action lawsuits that some initiated against Apple in the first few days that the iPhone 4 was on the market. But that is a subject for another article.
In any case Apple is giving out free Bumpers to all customers, and they have managed to make sure that there will be plenty on hand, and at the same time they won’t get more bad PR by gutting the relative cottage industry that iPhone third party accessories make up when compared to Apple’s corporate juggernaut.
Apple did that by “admitting”, or seeming to admit, that they couldn’t possibly manufacture enough Bumpers to satisfy all their customers themselves. And that they would get around that “problem” by enlisting the help of selected third party manufacturers, so that they could not only offer their customers a more diverse range of iPhone 4 Bumpers and covers to choose from. But also get them to them sooner rather than later. Whilst there may be some truth in the explanation that they could not produce enough Bumpers, it is certain that the thinking that went into that strategy ran deeper than simple supply issues.
To round the event out Steve confirmed that the white iPhone 4 would be available at the end of July. He assured us that Apple exists only to make its customers happy, and that they take all this very personally.
Finally in the Q&A he called both the New York Times and The Wall Street Journals liars.
“Now you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be… fooled.”
To be clear though, that last line I am quoting from “The Prestige” is not really where I am at personally. I never really saw there being a serious problem with the iPhone 4.
But that’s because I actually have one, and have been using it since a few days after launch, and have not had a single – not one – dropped call. And I use mine without a case in areas where both Nokia phones and previous iPhones had problems getting and keeping signals. So I don’t need to be convinced that the iPhone 4 is a great product.
Unfortunately Apple wasn’t trying to convince me. It was trying to convince an industry that exists on rumors and smoke and mirrors itself. Ironic when you consider that most rumor sites are the ones who feel they are drawing the curtain back on Apple’s “evil” PR machine. When in actual fact they are at best victims of their own forced feedback loop they create by stealing content from one another on the internet, and at worst vultures trolling for page views.
Overall I give Apple, and Steve Jobs 10 out of 10 for their handling of “antennagate”. So far…
I say so far, because it is not over yet. Those same sites, currently in some disarray as they work out their next move, already have their sights set on September the 30th. A deadline that Apple set for the end of free Bumpers. And one they are already assuming is the date that Apple will produce a hardware fix for the iPhone 4 that will change the laws of physics.
Woe betide Apple if they don’t come up with it. We might all be back at Cupertino in the first week of October otherwise.
Do let us know in the comments how you feel Apple has dealt with “Antennagate” so far…
Antenna design is a complex subject and has been a core competence at Nokia for decades, across hundreds of phone models. Nokia was the pioneer in internal antennas; the Nokia 8810, launched in 1998, was the first commercial phone with this feature.
Nokia has invested thousands of man hours in studying human behavior, including how people hold their phones for calls, music playing, web browsing and so on. As you would expect from a company focused on connecting people, we prioritize antenna performance over physical design if they are ever in conflict.
In general, antenna performance of a mobile device/phone may be affected with a tight grip, depending on how the device is held. That’s why Nokia designs our phones to ensure acceptable performance in all real life cases, for example when the phone is held in either hand. Nokia has invested thousands of man hours in studying how people hold their phones and allows for this in designs, for example by having antennas both at the top and bottom of the phone and by careful selection of materials and their use in the mechanical design.
Apple’s attempt to draw RIM into Apple’s self-made debacle is unacceptable. Apple’s claims about RIM products appear to be deliberate attempts to distort the public’s understanding of an antenna design issue and to deflect attention from Apple’s difficult situation. RIM is a global leader in antenna design and has been successfully designing industry-leading wireless data products with efficient and effective radio performance for over 20 years. During that time, RIM has avoided designs like the one Apple used in the iPhone 4 and instead has used innovative designs which reduce the risk for dropped calls, especially in areas of lower coverage. One thing is for certain, RIM’s customers don’t need to use a case for their BlackBerry smartphone to maintain proper connectivity. Apple clearly made certain design decisions and it should take responsibility for these decisions rather than trying to draw RIM and others into a situation that relates specifically to Apple. – Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie