“You’re holding it wrong,” is apparently the latest ‘advice’ from Apple’s Steve Jobs. When the iPhone 4 first came out, people noticed a lot of signal drops. To me, that would not be surprising because the iPhone requires the AT&T service, which, in Minnesota, totally sucks. There are vast areas of my own personal geography where AT&T has zero signal, and most of the rest of it ranges from acceptable to sucky.

But it turns out that the iPhone had low-bars to an extent beyond that expected. In early July, Apple explained this as a software problem. The signal was fine, but the software that set the bars was wrong making you think you had a bad signal when you really didn’t

That, dear reader, is absolutely remarkable because if true, it would be one of the most astounding examples of the Placebo Effect. You see, people were not only seeing low signal bars, but they were also losing the signal itself. So, according to Apple’s explanation, people’s phone calls were being cut off because they saw that the signal had low strength as indicated. This, then, caused the signal to actually become low, and sometimes the call to drop.

That is one incredibly strong Placebo Effect. If only we could come up with a form of sugar pill that would do that to cure cancer!!!11!!

In the mean time, iPhone users figured out that if you touched a certain part of the iPhone with your finger, the signal would reduce significantly. There’s a little gappy thing near one corner of the phone, and if you touch that you get a drop in signal strength. Sort of like if you take a sugar pill as a placebo but it is accidentally attached to some effective medicine. That could seriously boost the Placebo Effect!

But then, it turns out that when independent studies were done by Consumer Reports, it was true that the the iPhone’s signal problem is not a Placebo Effect at all. It’s a case, rather, of THIB. (The Hardware is Broken.)

It was about that time, according to some guy on the TV, that Steve Jobs suggested that the real problem was that iPhone users were holding the phone wrong. Which reminds me of a story

So this guy walks into a tailor and says he wants a new suit, but he is in a big hurry. The tailor takes a few measurements, and says “You know, it would take about ten days to make you a suit, but I have one on the rack that should fit you fine. Let’s try it.”

Eager to have is suit quickly, the customer agreed. But when the he donned the suit provided by the tailor, it did not fit quite as well has he had hoped.

“Look, the right sleeve … it’s longer than the left one.”

“Oh, just tuck a little of the cloth under your arm pit, keep your right arm near your body, and lift the shoulder a bit…”

“Oh, yea, that works,” the customer said, looking in the mirror. “That makes the sleeves look the same length. But now, the lapels are not lined up to each other.”

“Oh, no problem. Just bend at the waist about 11 degrees … there, that’s it. Now the lapels are fine.”

“Yeah, that works! But did you notice that this pocket on the right side is now bowed out. That does not look very good.”

“Oh, no problem. Just keep your left wrist in front of the pocket…. But wait, that causes the coat to ride up over here in the back. So keep your left wrist in front of the pocket, but raise your left elbow above shoulder level …. there… that’s it…”

And this went on for a few more minutes, until the suit was perfectly aligned, hung perfectly on the man’s frame, and demonstrated no flaws whatsoever, as long as the customer wearing the suit maintained extensive and intensive bodily contortions.

So the man paid for the suit, put it on, and made all the necessary bodily readjustments to make the suit fit perfectly, and left for his next errand, a couple of blocks down the avenue.

And as he walked along on the street, he walked by two guys sitting on a park bench feeding the pigeons.

One of them said to the other, “Look at that poor man. It must be hard to live a life with a skeletal-muscular disease as severe as that.”

The other man gazed at the suit-wearer for a moment, and replied, “True. But look at that suit: he has an amazingly talented tailor.”

And you, too, can look like a person with a problem in order to cover up a manufacturer’s flaw. It appears that you can either hold the iPhone exactly as Steve Jobs holds his iPhone, thusly not touching the Gap of Signal Death. Or, you can do this, and I promise you it works:


Get a piece of duct tape, and cover the gap with it. The gap, covered with duct tape, becomes a none issue for some reason. And, you now have a little piece of duct tape handy.

If I had an iPone 4, I’d go to the Apple Store every two or three days to get a fresh piece of duct tape.


  1. #1 Bill James
    July 12, 2010

    And still they buy them…

  2. It had become a branded toy more than a cellphone these days.

  3. #3 Jared
    July 13, 2010

    I’m dealing with another form of manufacturer shenanigans–currently: Motorola. Apparently, in order to get a timely OS update (within 6 months), we’re supposed to compile it and figure out a way to port it without root privileges.

  4. #4 symball
    July 13, 2010

    just a nitpicky comment- the software fault was that you got a stronger displayed signal than you should, which meant that the small drop caused by connecting the two antennae (by holding the phone ‘wrong’) looked like it caused a bigger problem than it did.

    This of course does not affect the myriad other problems with the latest version of the jesus phone- including the fact that it is overpriced and underpowered, I look forwards to getting my desire tomorrow so i can be smug about having a far superior bit of kit to all those blinkers jobbites.

  5. #5 Jody
    July 13, 2010

    Greg, I’ve read all of this, noted the problems, even replicated the drop in signal with my own iPhone 4. The “problem” with all of this is that it hasn’t lead to any dropped calls.

    As a matter of fact, I’m getting less dropped calls and better reception with my new 4 than with my old 3G. No tape over the gap, no bumper, save an ill-fitting sheath made for my old phone.

    I realize that we all have confirmation biases and the science rules the day. But what all of this research is telling me should be happening isn’t. And, as far as I can tell, the general experience of other early adopters is pretty much the same as mine.

    There’s some kind of… well, pardon the pun… disconnect going on here.

  6. #6 IanW
    July 13, 2010

    Duct tape doesn’t work for this. You have to use Apple’s own iDuct tape….

  7. #7 NewEnglandBob
    July 13, 2010

    From my iPhone 4:
    Mine works fine. I got it with a rubber case. Never a dropped call.

  8. #8 Idlethought
    July 13, 2010

    There was a bias effect – people were previously getting a crappy signal, but thought it was strong because lots of bars and the calls didn’t drop (if they did it was some other problem because hey- look at the bars).

    Now the bars drop, the calls drop and therefore the problem is a crappier signal. Are they getting more dropped calls? Can’t tell
    from the evidence available.

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    July 13, 2010

    the software fault was that you got a stronger displayed signal than you should, which meant that the small drop caused by connecting the two antennae (by holding the phone ‘wrong’) looked like it caused a bigger problem than it did.

    Ah … so, a double reverse Placebo effect, then!

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    July 13, 2010

    I realize that we all have confirmation biases and the science rules the day. But what all of this research is telling me should be happening isn’t.

    Jodi, first, you need to read this: http://tinyurl.com/24rgu7c (which should probably be titled two button mouse, not three button mouse). …* )

    Then, yes, I see your point, and I’m sure the iPhone is a wonderful product. And it is your experience that matters. My experience with AT&T (cited above) tells me that I can’t even consider one (and it’s not just AT&T … for me, anything that is not Verizon will not work for me).

    So, for me, I get to sit back and love the iPhone at no cost, or hate the iPhone at no cost, because for me, this particular Apple product “… just doesn’t work.”

    Plus, it (and the “smart phones” in general) are not shaped like phones. I’d be dropping it all the time.

  11. #11 Greg Laden
    July 13, 2010

    NEB: I heard they may be giving cases away. Is there one that comes free with the phone?

    IdleThought: “Can’t tell
    from the evidence available.” It could be that the reception on the iPhone 4 is the same as the previous model, but I think this antenna thing is new. In any event, Consumer Reports specifies the details of their study (see link above) so there is some evidence (of something).

  12. #12 Idlethought
    July 13, 2010

    I should skim a little less aggressively. I’d previously seen results from a study that were noticeably more ambiguous. You’re right though that video does strongly suggest an issue. Will be interesting to see if they can find a SW fix for that. Seems unlikely, but I suppose it depends on exactly what the nature of the problem is.

  13. #13 Greg Laden
    July 13, 2010

    If they could get the two antennas to not be working at exactly the same time, that would work, and that would be a software fix. They’re probably going to have to go with the iDuct iTape, though.

  14. #14 VJBinCT
    July 13, 2010

    Jody@5 So you use an iCondom on your new iPhone?

  15. #15 Irene
    July 13, 2010

    Jodi, you are living an Orwellian Dream.

    “No tape over the gap, no bumper, save an ill-fitting sheath made for my old phone.”

    You see, you are covering the gap that when touched breaks the phone. This is why you do not have the problem. You are wearing the now-proverbial finely tailored suit.

    Greg, I love that story about the tailor. It is an old one, though.

  16. #16 Lassi Hippeläinen
    July 13, 2010

    “Steve Jobs suggested that the real problem was that iPhone users were holding the phone wrong.”

    D’uh. Nokia did that twelve years ago. Model 8810 (“Zippo”) had to be held so that innocent bystanders could see it. Otherwise it lost signal.

  17. #17 dnf
    July 13, 2010

    It’s not unique to the iPhone. Even the Nokia 2320 manual tells you not to hold their phone wrong:


    Bottom of page 9. 🙂 Of course, there aren’t lines out the door and around the block for the 2320 so no one is making a big deal of it.

  18. #18 Erin R
    July 13, 2010

    For me, the worst thing about the bug isn’t so much that the bug exists. It’s that the bug exists, and it’s incredibly easy to activate if you’re left handed. If you’re right handed, you need to do some fancy contortioning to cover up the gap.

    The biggest problem with smarphones and the iPhone is one that Greg and others touched on (and one that I’ve experienced on my iPhone and two previous smart phones) really is the shape. For someone as clumsy as me, it’s a miracle I’ve yet to shatter the screen.

  19. #19 BrianX
    July 15, 2010

    The fix should be fairly straightforward on Apple’s end too — about a centimeter of plastic covering the antenna gap ought to do the trick, and be more permanent than the tape. In the meantime, Apple’s best choice is probably to offer people discounts on phone cases (or free cheap ones).

    I mentioned this somewhere else, but this is one of those curious situations where the engineers probably missed an obvious problem because (if the leaked prototype was any indication) all the testers were using phone cases. I’ve heard of this sort of mistake happening twice before — one was with the first version of MacPaint, which had a copy/paste bug that had something to do with misaligned memory accesses on the firmware level, and one was during the writing of Kyoto Common Lisp, where the Japanese team kept hitting gaps in the specification that were caused by leaving out things the US Lispers took for granted. I get the sense that mistakes like that are probably more common than people realize. (BTW, the KCL case led to a drastically updated Common Lisp spec, but the MacPaint bug couldn’t be fixed because the ROM code had already been frozen. Apple solved it with a software patch.)