Apple 2.0

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Signal trouble: British iPhone mystery

November 25, 2007: 9:47 AM ET

picture-10.jpgIs O2's network to blame, or Apple's (AAPL) iPhone?

That's the question posed by more than a few British iPhone owners who purchased the device in the past two weeks and have been struggling ever since to get decent telephone reception on it.

The problem surfaced two days after the phone went on sale in the U.K. when "Matlock" in Derbyshire started a discussion thread on Apple's support board entitled "UK 02 (poor signal strength/reception problems)":

My iphone can barely pick up even the slightest signal, although on occasion can pick up 3 [b]ars, only for it to drop out again. I have two other 02 phones, a Sony Erricson and a Nokia n95 with no reception problems at all. Is anyone experiencing same problem with their iphone, I would like to hear from you. (link)

Two weeks later, Matlock's query has received more than 100 replies (and 3,723 pageviews), most of them registering similar complaints. Some users found that reinstalling the software made a difference. When others returned their phones for new ones, the problem went away (although some reported that the new phones were no better).

Definitive U.K. sales figures are not available, but O2 reported that "tens of thousands" of iPhones were sold the first weekend it was available.

Several posters on the Apple discussion board volunteered that unlike the complainants, they were getting great reception on their iPhones. And many owners with signal problems expressed pleasure with how well the device performed its other functions.

But unlike American iPhone owners, who tend to blame any reception headaches on AT&T's (T) cellular network, the assumption in the U.K. seems to be that the signal problem is Apple's. That impression is reinforced by O2, which has been referring callers directly to the manufacturer.

One clue is that many British iPhone owners can, like Matlock, compare the signal strength on their iPhone with other cellphones using the same network (one user even posted photos showing the phones side by side). Another is that the indicator on the iPhone tends to jump to five bars as soon as it is placed in the charging dock, which suggests that the problem is battery related. As user Richard Catledge points out:

It says in the manual that phone signal is adjusted to the minimum power when not in use, just enough to detect the incoming pings, then it will power up to get the best quality call. It is digital, so as long as the signal power is strong enough to reconstruct at the other end, more power is pointless. I suspect this is what you are seeing, or a slightly flakey implementation.

Meanwhile, the consensus on the discussion board is that unhappy owners should let Apple know. Writes one user who posts as ::...SAM...::,

The only way to get anything done about it is if people that have poor signal problems is to take your phone back and get it replaced. The more phones they get back, the sooner they will do something to fix the problem. Emails and complaints are fine, they can be put in a folder, high handset return numbers cant be so easy to hide under the rug.

Thanks to InformationWeek's Alexander Wolfe for the link. See his report here.

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Philip Elmer-Dewitt
Philip Elmer-DeWitt
Editor, Apple 2.0, Fortune

Philip Elmer-DeWitt has been following Apple since 1982, first for Time Magazine, and now on the Web for Fortune.com.

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