The potential iPhone 4 antenna defect is the hot news story of the month. This isn’t the first time that problems have surfaced in devices once they’ve been shipped. What’s more interesting is the way companies handle it once it happens. In 1994, Intel went through the same experience with the Pentium floating point unit bug and their handling of the situation offers some interesting parallels.
Andy Grove’s biography by Richard Tedlow has an excellent account of the episode and the mistakes Intel made. Intel was on a high in 1994 having just released the Pentium which was received well by the market. Towards the end of 1994, a professor in Virginia discovered a bug in the Pentium’s FPU and started writing about it. This was the early days of the internet and the information spread quickly through newsgroups. Intel was already aware of the bug by this time and had decided to fix it in the next version of the processor. According to Intel, the bug did not impact most users – it was so small in comparison to other bugs in shipping products that it wasn’t worth the effort to pursue it as something very important. They decided to “just go about their business”.
What started as a minor bug covered by some trade magazines and on the internet soon became a major embarrassment with the mainstream media getting on Intel’s case. An Intel representative came on CNN and was dismissive of the bug describing it terms of the distance between the Earth and the Sun and how insignificant it actually was. Andy Grove himself posted to the com.sys.intel and wrote a “long winded” response. His post has an uncanny resemblance to Apple’s response to the antenna issue -
The Pentium processor was introduced into the market in May of ‘93 after the most extensive testing program we at Intel have ever embarked on. Because this chip is three times as complex as the 486, and because it includes a number of improved floating point algorithms, we geared up to do an array of tests, validation, and verification that far exceeded anything we had ever done.
The iPhone 4 has been the most successful product launch in Apple’s history. It has been judged by reviewers around the world to be the best smartphone ever, and users have told us that they love it. So we were surprised when we read reports of reception problems [...] 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.
Not that the chip was perfect; no chip ever is. [...] After almost 25 years in the microprocessor business, I have come to the the conclusion that no microprocessor is ever perfect; they just come closer to perfection with each stepping. In the life of a typical microprocessor, we go thru half a dozen or more such steppings.
To start with, gripping almost any mobile phone in certain ways will reduce its reception by 1 or more bars. This is true of iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, as well as many Droid, Nokia and RIM phones. But some users have reported that iPhone 4 can drop 4 or 5 bars when tightly held in a way which covers the black strip in the lower left corner of the metal band. This is a far bigger drop than normal, and as a result some have accused the iPhone 4 of having a faulty antenna design.
Both companies are vehemently defending their product at this stage. Back in 1994, as Intel was trying to handle the situation, IBM resorted to a low blow and decided to stop shipping Pentium based PCs (There is a history to this too. Tedlow describes how Intel was largely disliked by their OEM partners at this time and IBM just took advantage of the situation). The resulting fall in the stock price forced Intel’s hand and they decided to replace the Pentium processors upon request. As Andy Grove wrote:
Our previous policy was to talk with users to determine whether their needs required replacement of the processor. To some people this policy seemed arrogant and uncaring. We apologize. We were motivated by a belief that replacement was simply unnecessary for most people. We still feel that way, but we are changing our policy because we want there to be no doubt that we stand behind this product. (emphasis mine)
As Tedlow points out even this response was too long and lacked grace. Just a simple “we’re sorry and will provide a replacement without question” may have been better. I’m sure Intel was right in their assessment that it was a trivial bug which they tried to communicate for a long time and failed. It’s the same in Apple’s case. Saying “We’re sorry, there was bug in the software. We’ve fixed it. Update coming.”, would have possibly prevented a lot of debate. In the minds of its customers Apple products “just work”. That is the biggest thing at stake here.
Andy Grove is recognized as one of the best CEOs the technology industry has ever had and Steve Jobs is right up there with him. It’s fascinating to see the similarities in how the two strong-willed leaders find it hard to let an “unfair accusation” go. Both know how hard they’ve worked behind the scenes to ship an amazing product and feel compelled to make that case to their users. But, as the Heath brothers would say, maybe they need to move past their “curse of knowledge” and simplify the message.
Apple has waived the restocking fee if people want to return their phones. Nobody knows if the lawsuits will force a recall. It’s unlikely that Apple’s partners will abandon them like IBM did, but it’s looking like this story has a few more chapters in it.