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Apple CEO Steve Jobs talks about "Antennagate" during a news conference on problems with the iPhone 4 at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California. (Kimberly Whit/Kimberly White/Reuters)
Apple CEO Steve Jobs talks about "Antennagate" during a news conference on problems with the iPhone 4 at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California. (Kimberly Whit/Kimberly White/Reuters)

The shame game Add to ...

Feeling threatened over Apple's iPhone 4 reception issues, Lord Steve Jobs of Cupertino lashed out on Friday like a spastic octopus, attaching his blame tentacles to any smartphone-maker within sight.

Research In Motion? Check. Nokia? Check. HTC? Check. Samsung? Check None of them, it seems, are amused. Understandably.

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At one point during an extremely rare press conference, Apple's turtleneck-clad chief executive did admit he was sorry to users who were experiencing reception issues.

But no one can be blamed for missing the mea culpa, since it was drowned out in Jobs' intense naming and shaming of other handset makers, of saying the issues swirling around "Antennagate" are in no way exclusive to his company. At the press conference, he showed in video footage how RIM BlackBerrys and HTC phones also suffer from the design flaw.

In other words, everyone has these sorts of issues, Lord Jobs said, don't just blame Apple! The antenna hub of their website now has videos of smartphones other than their iPhone, losing reception when held a certain way.

To which the others reply: "Are we selling our handsets with cases because of an engineering fault?! No. Leave us out of this."

Apple's competition were somewhat slow to react to Jobs' accusations, but by Monday morning, all the biggies had registered their disdain for what appears to be rather dirty tactics on Apple's behalf.

"Apple's attempt to draw RIM into Apple's self-made debacle is unacceptable," Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, RIM's co-CEOs, said in a statement. "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."

Finland-based wireless behemoth Nokia likewise did not take Lord Jobs' mudslinging lying down. Apple's claim that it was an irrational "death grip" on their beautifully flawless iPhone that was causing reception issues was met with measured, Scandinavian scorn.

"As you would expect from a company focused on connecting people, we prioritize antenna performance over physical design if they are ever in conflict," Nokia said in a statement. "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."

Ouch! Samsung chimed in with this: "We have not received significant customer feedback on any signal reduction issue for the Omnia II."

A spokesperson for HTC told the Pocket-lint blog that only 0.016 per cent of Droid Eris users have complained.

Shortly after Apple's deflections on Friday, I phoned up Forrester Research analyst Charles Golvin. Part of our conversation that didn't make the article Omar El Akkad and I wrote together for Saturday's paper dealt with the fact that all these handset makers employ scores of talented engineers, all of which are capable of doing comparative testing - and then using it to their advantage.

Wireless carriers, with their network operations centres, have even more intimate details of a handset's engineering and design flaws: They track all of the customer complaints and tally up who is complaining about what, why and when. A Bell Mobility executive, for example, told me that they sit down with RIM to discuss the problems their call centers are dealing with - whether reception issues, operating system issues, trackballs breaking down - so that RIM can incorporate these into future devices and fixes. Carriers, though, have no reason to bash a handset maker - unless they don't sell it, in which case they wouldn't know anything about it.

Of course, the old rule No. 1 of marketing was that you never mention your competitor. But in an era where Pepsi and Coke are calling each other out, and Verizon is heaping insults on AT&T with a metaphorical cement mixer, that' rule's probably at the curb by now.

"The carriers sell a choice of phones, they can't be seen as favouring one brand or another," Charles told me. "But the manufacturers, certainly, can do their own testing and could make claims of their own, about the quality of their antennas or performance. There's nothing to prevent them from doing that. No one has to date. If these competitors believe that they have an advantage over Apple in this regard - because they certainly don't have an advantage in apps and software and experience - they ought to make some hay out of it."

Who knows? It's a pretty good idea, though it opens you up to counter-attacks if you're being inaccurate - a backlash Apple is now feeling, though these responses are getting considerably less media coverage than Apple's original deflection.

RIM, for one, constantly brags about the BlackBerry's superior data compression - which pack wireless data more efficiently and allow data deluged carriers to breathe a sigh of relief. But they're not exactly launching commercials insulting Apple's iPhone for being a data-destroyer.

Perhaps these companies do this privately, to wireless carriers, when they're trying to win a new client for their phones. But it might behoove all these handset makers to become more public with their aggressive assertions.

Steve Jobs certainly has no problem with it, from smartphone reception issues to insulting Adobe Flash. And it seems to have worked out pretty nicely for him.

So far.

Follow on Twitter: @iainmarlow

 

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