A Mobile Phone. An Internet Communicator. An iPod. Great Design, Bad Engineering

When Steve Jobs announced the iPhone 4, admittedly a jaw dropping design of a mobile device, he talked about its antenna, part of the chassis of the device, calling it ‘really cool engineering’. What Steve Jobs, meant to say was ‘great design’, for the iPhone 4 antennæ are likely one of the worst engineering examples possible in a mobile device. It’s hard to have accurate explanations without circuit schematics — or an actual iPhone 4 — but touching the antenna might very well ‘detune’ it — fingers act as picofarad capacitors and for those frequencies they can mess things up considerably for the driving circuits; touching both antennæ might also have unpredictable results to both subsystems of the iPhone, although the issues seem to be there even when you simply touch the ‘left’ antenna.
It is bewildering why Apple engineering didn’t figure this out, but it wouldn’t be the first time they mess up something big like that. Apple has undoubtedly great engineering and amazing industrial design, yet being a pioneer comes at an expense and Apple has already dropped the ball too many times already in the past ten years: the flakey Titanium Powerbook coating, the original iPod battery charging issue, the unbelievable PowerMac G4 MDD noise, the pitting issues on early Aluminium Powerbooks, various issues (and subsequent recalls) with iBook motherboards, the PowerMac G5 Quad coolant leaks, the flakey white Macbook coating among others.
The list goes on, but one thing is certain: the iPhone 4 is a world-class device that will most probably succeed no matter what. Unless annoyed users become a really loud nuissance and hurt sales, Jobs and Co. will quietly fix it for iPhone 5 and those using the iPhone 4 will have to suffice to using a malfunctioning, badly engineered iPhone 4 and a blunt recommendation to “not hold it this way or get a case”. Sad, but that’s how Apple has been operating for years, even when it was much weaker financially, so there’s no surprise there.
Update: This could be due to a few faulty batches, as some people have reported that they don’t have any issues with their new iPhone 4s. It could also, in theory, be remedied through smart software management of the radios.
Update 2: Apple has responded! They claim it was a software error in the signal strength calculation that has been identified and corrected. If that’s the case it’s certainly good news for iPhone 4 owners. Sadly, I don’t think it’s a simple as they make it out to be — there seems to be a genuine, albeit minor, flaw in the hardware design.