Deny and deflect

It probably had to happen sometime. After the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad, Apple's string of innovative hits was tripped up last month thanks to the Great Death Grip Fiasco. It's probably of little comfort to Apple that the resulting hoopla - and the eagerness of Steve Jobs' detractors to see him taken down a few pegs - underlines neatly just how much clout Apple has built up for itself in the device space, and how much is expected of it.

There will be plenty of debate in the coming months over how much damage has been done to Apple's reputation, and how well Apple ultimately handled the situation. Some observers have said Apple did itself no favors by waiting so long to acknowledge the problem - and then offering unhelpful explanations (it's the bar-calculation software) and recycling old jokes ("It doesn't work when I hold it this way." "Then don't hold it that way."). Others say Apple did the right thing by taking the time to figure out just what the problem was and what could be done to mitigate it instead of trying to appease the mob without knowing what it was talking about.

The cruel irony of it all is that Apple's most ridiculed explanations - that users are holding it wrong, and that similarly designed smartphones also experience signal loss when held a certain way - are actually true.

Probably. At least to a point.

User beware

For example, much criticism has been directed at the iPhone 4's antenna design, which places the antenna exactly where people tend to grip a phone, hence the death-grip problem. However, with less than 1% of iPhone 4 customers reporting reception issues, and a record-low 1.7% return rate, a good argument can be made that most people are in fact holding it "properly."
Also, it's technically true that other smartphones (though not necessarily all) are subject to potential signal loss if held in a way that blocks the antenna, depending on the antenna design and location, which is why several manufacturers put pages in their user manuals explaining where the antennas are and how to avoid blocking them.

Taking it a step further, at the heart of the fiasco is the simple truism that RF antenna design for consumer devices is hard. It's always been hard. Smartphone makers have to figure out how to jam an antenna into something the size of an iPhone (or smaller) that can transmit/receive on at least three cellular bands as well as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi at 2.4 GHz, and it has to coexist with cameras, microphones, speakers and a battery with no interference and comply with RF regulations on power output.

The road to 4G may complicate things even further with dual-mode FDD/TDD chipsets (at 2.6 and 2.3 GHz) and digital dividend spectrum freed up in the UHF and even VHF bands added to the mix. With that many 4G bands to support, device makers will have their work cut out for them trying to support all that in one device.

On the other hand, that's what they're paid to do. And this is the rub: most end-users don't care how hard it is. All they care about is whether your product does what it's supposed to do.

Which is why Apple's various responses ultimately fell flat. Whether Steve Jobs had the truth on his side or not was beside the point. No one who forks out a few hundred dollars for a phone that drops calls wants to be told, "It's your fault it doesn't work" or "Everyone else's phones do that, so don't sweat it". They want you to take responsibility for your product and the design behind it.
Apple kinda sorta did, but probably should have done it sooner. Either way, the company will survive, of course, though its next big innovation had better be good - and glitch-free.