July 15, 2010— -- Apple's Midas touch has delivered a steady stream of computer and gadget hits over the years, but a day ahead of a news conference to address the iPhone 4 "death grip" debacle, the company finds itself in the unfamiliar position of defending a new product and its reputation for flawless PR and innovation.
After weeks of getting pummeled in the press over an apparent antenna issue with the iPhone 4, the company announced the Friday event at its Cupertino, Calif., headquarters late Wednesday afternoon but disclosed few details, other than saying it will address the iPhone 4.
Analysts and industry watchers say they doubt there is much truth to Internet rumors of a recall, but many say Apple faces an "unprecedented" PR crisis and must offer customers some kind of remedy to emerge from the situation untarnished.
"It definitely is new ground. It's a pretty Teflon-coated company," said Leander Kahney, editor of the blog Cult of Mac. "They've never had to deal with anything like this. This is by far the worst press they have ever received."
In the first three days of its international launch last month, the iPhone 4 found its way into more than 1.7 million hands around the world. The company has called the release of the device, touted by CEO Steve Jobs as the "biggest leap" yet from the original iPhone, the most successful launch in Apple's history.
But the impressive early sales and the buzz that surrounded the launch have been marred by customer complaints that holding the phone in a certain way blocks the external antenna, leading to dropped calls and reception issues.
According to tech reviewers and iPhone users, call reception apparently drops when the user's palm covers the bottom left corner of the phone.
A Bloomberg report today said a senior antenna expert at Apple warned CEO Steve Jobs early on that the iPhone 4's design could lead to dropped calls.
The antenna issue -- dubbed the "death grip" by many bloggers -- has led to several lawsuits seeking class action status and a storm of bad press that escalated over the past few weeks.
The backlash reached its peak on Monday, when Consumer Reports said it would not recommend the iPhone 4 (though it still ranked it among the top smartphones on the market). Even David Letterman joined the fray this week with a top 10 list featuring the iPhone's problems.
But Kahney said it's likely that the company will do more explaining than recalling on Friday.
"I think what they're going to do is try to explain it away and say this is the best antenna ever and it works brilliantly under most circumstances unless you're in an area with sketchy reception and you're holding the phone the wrong way," he said.
Apple: Gripping Any Phone Could Reduce Reception
Apple quickly responded after the initial complaints started surfacing online, releasing a statement that said, "Gripping any phone will result in some attenuation of its antenna performance, depending on the placement of the antennas."
Apple also suggested that customers by iPhone cases, called "bumpers," that mitigate the problem.
The company later released another statement, repeating its claim that gripping any phone in certain ways could reduce reception, but indicating its surprise that the phone overstated signal strength.
"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," the company said. Apple said it would release a free software update soon to fix the problem.
Cult of Mac's Kahney said he thinks that while it would be expensive, some kind of "soft recall" could adequately address the issue.
"I think that if they say that there's a problem here and we have a good hardware solution, they'll be fine," he said. "I think that's what they've got to do, otherwise this problem won't go away,"
He suggested that the company fix the phone with a coating over the antenna and then let current iPhone 4 customers swap phones if they are experiencing reception problems.
Others emphasize that the company will likely stay away from a recall altogether.
"For them to recall at this point is going to cost tons of money and hurt their brand image even more," said Kevin Tofel, editor of the mobile technology blog JKOnTheRun.
Though he said that though the company was on "unprecedented ground," Tovel said he believes the situation will only be a blip on the radar in the long run, assuming Apple comes up with a solution.
"They can't not do anything anymore. They've lost control of the situation. It's out of control from a PR standpoint," he said. "They've got to hand out free bumpers or figure out some kind of workaround."
Analyst: Apple Needs to Give Clarification, Re-Direct the Media
Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies, Inc., a Silicon Valley analyst said that while not all of the phones appear to have the antenna issue, the problem still appears large enough that Apple needs to steer the media conversation.
"What I expect Apple to do is clear the air, give everybody a solid understanding of the technology and what they've done," he said. "And, fundamentally, if there is an issue, explain some kind of remedy."
He also said that given the fact that not everyone seems to be experiencing the antenna problem (he, for example, was unable to replicate the issue on seven phones), the company might want to explore the possibility that only a batch of phones were affected during manufacturing.
Still, others point out that despite complaints from customers, it doesn't appear that they're so upset that they're actually willing to give up the phone.
"We've all been talking about this but… are people lining up at stores to return the iPhone? I haven't seen it," said Lance Ulanoff, editor-in-chief ofPC Magazine. "The iPhone 4, in PC Magazine's opinion, is an excellent product, period."