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Dr. Touch #18 – “Bar None”

The iPhone 4 rulez, bar none.

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Show notes, aka “my script” after the break.

The first weekend of availability of the iPhone 4 also was the historically best product launch that Apple ever did. 1.7 Million iPhones where sold on the first weekend. There are an estimated 1.2 million new iPads in the channel every month and Apple is reported to be making 3 Million iPhone 4 per month. Earlier this year Apple reported that they sold more than 85 Million iOS-based devices. At the end of next year there will be way over 100 Million potential iPhone subscribers.  These numbers prove to me more than ever that the iOS platform is the one to bet on in the long run.

There’s been a short but lively debate whether Steve Jobs told the truth about the retina display. He claimed on stage that the 326 dpi of the iPhone 4 screen are more than the eye can resolve at a distance of 12 inches away. Steve said:

“It turns out there’s a magic number right around 300 pixels per inch, that when you hold something around to 10 to 12 inches away from your eyes, is the limit of the human retina to differentiate the pixels.”

Wired published an article calling this claim “False Marketing”. Resolution to the human eye is not a number of pixels, but actually an angle. If two impressions on your retina come from an angle that is closer than this threshold then they are seen as one dot. For perfect eyes, this angle is 0.6 arcmin. One pixel on the iPhone 4 is about 0.0031 inches in size. At 12 inches with 0.6 arcmin resolution a pixel needs to be smaller than 0.0021. Which would actually mean that Steve’s statement was wrong, because for perfect eyes the iPhone 4’s pixels are 30% too large.

Another author debunking the Wired article as overly pedantic tells us that almost nobody has such a fine resolution on their retina. 1 arcminute is more like the generally useful number. And at that resolution pixels can be 0.0035 in diameter in 12 inches to be seen as 1 pixel. We’re saved! 0.0031 is smaller than 0.0035 and thus – for regular eyes – the original claim holds truth.

This is in line how I perceive Apple: as a company that makes great products that fit normal human beings perfectly. Somebody with super-human powers or -eyesight has to blink, but everybody else should be extremely happy with the kind of hardware advances that Apple’s brilliant engineers are coming up with. One more thing, that I don’t understand: where is the fun in calling Steve a liar? Is that what’s journalism has come to?

Apple has responded officially to people’s complaint that you can cause the number of bars to drop if you cup your hands around the bottom of the iPhone 4. Antenna and RF engineers have been interviewed extensively by the press and the consensus is that it’s not as bad as it seems.

Apple writes:

We have discovered the cause of this dramatic drop in bars, and it is both simple and surprising.

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. For example, we sometimes display 4 bars when we should be displaying as few as 2 bars. Users observing a drop of several bars when they grip their iPhone in a certain way are most likely in an area with very weak signal strength, but they don’t know it because we are erroneously displaying 4 or 5 bars. Their big drop in bars is because their high bars were never real in the first place.

To fix this, we are adopting AT&T’s recently recommended formula for calculating how many bars to display for a given signal strength. The real signal strength remains the same, but the iPhone’s bars will report it far more accurately, providing users a much better indication of the reception they will get in a given area. We are also making bars 1, 2 and 3 a bit taller so they will be easier to see.

We will issue a free software update within a few weeks that incorporates the corrected formula. Since this mistake has been present since the original iPhone, this software update will also be available for the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 3G.

We have gone back to our labs and retested everything, and the results are the same— the iPhone 4’s wireless performance is the best we have ever shipped. For the vast majority of users who have not been troubled by this issue, this software update will only make your bars more accurate. For those who have had concerns, we apologize for any anxiety we may have caused.

What’s astonishing about this is the language that Apple uses to admit to a mistake. That’s quite un-Apple if you will.

Let’s recap.

AT&T has a big cell tower right in front of Apple’s headquarters.

For fear of discovery iPhone 4s very only permitted off Apple’s campus in camuflage cases. Even phones that where meant to be lost in bars had such a case.

Apple removed the field test mode from the iPhone 4 that has been present in all prior iPhones.

And suddenly Apple makes a case themselves which interestingly appears to be fixing the problem.

My take is that engineers at Apple are usually very much afraid of voicing any concerns that would question strategies that where laid down by Steve Jobs himself. The slogan turned from “Think differently” to “Hold it differently”.

What’s interesting is that the problems with the bars did not really catch Apple by surprise. Walt Mossberg of “All Things Digital” reviewed the iPhone before anybody else and his review ended with these words:

But, in my tests, network reception was a mixed bag. Compared with the previous model, the new iPhone dropped marginally fewer calls made in my car, both in Washington and in Boston, and was much louder and clearer over my car’s built-in Bluetooth speaker-phone system.

Yet, in some places where the signal was relatively weak, the iPhone 4 showed no bars, or fewer bars than its predecessor. Apple says that this is a bug it plans to fix, and that it has to do with the way the bars are presented, not the actual ability to make a call. And, in fact, in nearly all of these cases, the iPhone 4 was able to place calls despite the lack of bars.

However, 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.

Just as with its predecessors, I can’t recommend this new iPhone for voice calling for people who experience poor AT&T reception, unless they are willing to carry a second phone on a network that works better for them.

For everyone else, however, I’d say that Apple has built a beautiful smartphone that works well, adds impressive new features and is still, overall, the best device in its class.

Could it be that these first public testers where the people who actually told Apple that there might be a problem that their previous testing regime was not able to show due to the secrecy employed?

Anandtech.com did a noteworthy experiment. They managed to get an iPhone 4 to display the decibels instead of bars. And it turns out that for half the possible ranges of signal the iPhones show 5 bars. -113 decibels is the worst possible and -51 the best reported. From -91 to -51 there are 5 bars. Whereas 1 is -113 to -107. 2 bars -107 through -103. 3 bars -103 through -101 and 4 bars -101 through -91. The worst drop they where able to measure was about 20 decibels. So if you are under a tower at -51 and get to -71 you’d still see 5 bars. But at -91 decibels going to -111 means a drop from 4 bars to 1 bar. Yes Apple,  that’s stunning.

What Anandtech ALSO found is that even in situations where the reported reception was not as good as with the 3GS they data transmission still was better. This points to a much improved RF radio part. We don’t know is how the new AT&T recommended formula will look like, but most likely it will exchange the decibels which are way to much fluctuating for reporting Signal-To-Noise Ratio (SNR) which is a way more useful value when judging digital communications. The decibels display is an anachronistic left-over from times when mobile phones where still analog.

To summarize: the bars are nonsense anyway. A software update will come and make them bigger. And if you are in an area of marginal cellular reception then you have to train the Vulcan phone pinch. Technically the iPhone has a far better antenna and RF system than previous phones. So if you have problems holding the phone like you want to, get a bumper. Don’t hold it like that.

Then there’s the thing about the proximity sensor. Some people seem to be not getting their screen disabled when using the phone on their cheek. This might have to do with hairs or moisture in your ear canal reflecting bright sunlight onto the sensor. The sharp corner of the iPhone 4’s front glass does not really invite to hold it such that the sensor is fully covered. So if you have this problem, then use the headset, speaker mode or go to a darker location. There have been reports that resetting the network settings fixed the problem for some users. Though we don’t know for sure.

The real cost of the iPhone 4 by the way is 188 Dollars according to a tearown by iSupply. That’s actually more than previous models. So you really get more value for your money.

I’ve already had saved a couple of hundred dollars for this year’s WWDC session videos. But then Apple did something unexpected: they released them for FREE. If you have a paid iPhone developer account you can download them in either High Definition or Standard via iTunes. The HD versions look great! The demand for those videos is still so large that you might have to be a bit patient. But you have time to get them all and get really smart from watching them. The first one I looked at was the on introducing Xcode 4. Once you download the videos they will end up in the iTunes U section of iTunes, so treat them like a 100 hours university course on iPhone programming.

Finbarr Brady, an iOS Developer from Ireland, has started a campaign to convince Apple that international promo codes are a good idea. Currently promo codes can only be used by US-based iTunes accounts. Finbarr argues that being able to promote our apps outside of the US with internationally usable codes would increase our business. He suggests to go to bugreport.apple.com and open a new bug report referencing his with number 8170041. I did that and naturally Apple answers:

“After further investigation it has been determined that this is a known issue, which is currently being investigated by engineering.  This issue has been filed in our bug database under the original Bug ID# 8170041″

This gives the Finbarr’s original bug report more weight and if lots of developers are doing that then Apple will have to give in.

That reminds me of my own campaign. Since April 2009 I am trying to get Apple to give us an official API for iTunes Connect. My bug report requesting it has number 6807195.  So while you’re at it please submit a feature request for this as well. Interesting though, in my bug report I requested that apple would make an app if they didn’t want to hand out an API. And so they did. They released ITC Mobile during the WWDC week. But unfortunately it’s of very little use. Doesn’t have any monetary values or export capabilities. But their app shows that they have an HTTPS encrypted special API endpoint. So all they would need to do is make it robust enough for external tools to interface with it. That’s my dream.

Apple relaxed one of the SDK agreement rules to permit interpreted code under certain circumstances. Before the WWDC Apple hat put in section 3.3.2 to prohibit anything that was not written in Objective-C, essentially to prevent Adobe from coming out with their Flash-to-iPhone Compiler. The new wording includes this statement: “Notwithstanding the foregoing, with Apple’s prior written consent, an Application may use embedded interpreted code in a limited way if such use is solely for providing minor features or functionality that are consistent with the intended and advertised purpose of the Application”. The media interprets this as scripting languages contained in game engines would be allowed.

There are several dubious practices going on when it comes to getting certain apps pushed. There was a report of 400 accounts gotten compromised to push the manga books of a certain developer. This developer has since been thrown out the the store. At least Apple reacted eventually to the problem and fixed it like any good Police would.

Finally there’s a new service that I don’t quite know what to make of. It’s called apperang and apparently they pay you for installing certain apps. I signed up but when I clickend on “Browse Apps” I got the message “Sorry, Mate! There are no apps available right now”. Hm. That might either be because nobody is using them to promote their apps yet, or because it’s a somewhat shady business proposal. If you try it out please let me know what you find out.


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