The Politics of Antennagate

The iPhone 4 has antenna problems. But you knew that, right? I think the clamorous hordes of tech bloggers have beaten that into our heads by now, like Gallagher pounding a watermelon into juicy chunks while we in the audience cower under the plastic sheet to keep from ruining our favorite ThinkGeek T-shirt. A few weeks ago, just as the iPhone 4’s antenna problem was surfacing, it wasn’t clear if this was a design flaw, a manufacturing defect, or something else altogether. It turns out that the attenuating effect is either a minor design flaw or a design tradeoff, depending upon whom you’re speaking to.

The Apple haters said the antenna was defective, Apple was evil, and that you should just buy an Android phone instead. They were having a jolly time poking fun at Apple. Their joy was warranted. After all, Apple is known for its quality products and a serious Apple fail is a big news. On the flip side of the coin, Apple’s devotees said that it wasn’t a big deal, that all phones have this problem, and that the whole thing was being blown out of proportion.

Soon, however, the jovial anti-Apple crowd, emboldened by their self-righteousness and their insatiable schadenfreude, became more vociferous and acerbic. This wasn’t just a funny Apple goof anymore, it was Apple’s Waterloo. Once the fatwa had been issued by the partisans at Gizmodo and elsewhere, lawsuits commenced, threats were issued, the blogsophere erupted with angry Apple haters bleeting insults at the “iSheep”, and craziness ensued.

Don’t get me wrong. I am pretty annoyed with Apple over the whole thing, not because Apple made a mistake — anyone who has used a mouse made by Apple knows that Apple makes mistakes — but because the official responses from Apple were so tactless and absurd that, at first, I honestly believed they were hoaxed. There was Jobs’s dismissive e-mail response which spawned the “Don’t hold it that way” meme. Then there was the official letter from Apple which promised a “fix” that would make the bars bigger. Oh, and by the way, the iPhone’s signal strength display is “totally wrong” and has been since the beginning so, even if you weren’t being duped now, you were being duped for the past three years. Sorry! Eventually, Apple’s bumbling culminated in a hastily announced press conference during which they admitted to the issue, downplayed its significance, and offered free cases to iPhone buyers.

The whole thing sounds like something straight out of The Onion. Apple’s absurd handling of the issue was deservedly excoriated in the media. But what amazes me most about Antennagate is how closely it resembles American politics.

Take the name itself: “Antennagate.” The “gate” suffix is almost entirely exclusive to the realm of American political scandals. Aside from Antennagate, I can’t think of a single tech scandal in which the “gate” apellation was applied as liberally as it has been here. Even the SCO controversy or Microsoft’s monumental failures with Vista or the Xbox’s Red Ring of Death were spared the indignity. And surely no tech controversy has achieved such a level of partisan rancor as has this one. Even the most heated debates within the factional and highly-opinionated open source community — Mono, for example — are weighted heavily to one side and quite civil by comparison.

In the United States, we don’t have the type of political discourse that Thucydides would recognize. I would describe that classical form of politics as “the tactful maneuvering against one’s political opponents using logical deduction, reason, and carefully crafted oratory.” Rather, we have a circus act orchestrated by two clowns, the Republicans and the Democrats, each of which is more interested in bonking the other over the head with socks filled with loose change than with solving, or even rationally discussing, real problems. In America, politics is about competition, not ideas. It’s a reality show, funded by taxpayers and lobbyists, scripted to keep us enraged and disgusted while America’s real enemies quietly pick our pockets.

Antennagate has had a similar effect. Instead of a discussion of the merits of Apple’s design choices, the mob quickly disintegrated into distinct parties, each shouting the other down. Like the Democrats did to Bush and the Republicans are now doing to Obama, the Apple haters were hoping that by throwing as much crap as possible at Apple, something would eventually stick. It doesn’t matter how extensive the problem is, how much consumers care about it, or even if Apple’s competitors face the same difficulties. The Apple haters’ goal was never justice for Apple’s customers, but victory for themselves (and probably for Android by proxy).

Also like in American politics, the cacophony eventually bubbled out the cloistered inner circles and into the public, leaving people confused and cynical. In politics, voters often don’t know who to believe, so they believe whoever is shouting the loudest, simplest, most oft-repeated phrases. The same has happened here with Antennagate: much of the public now believes that iPhone 4’s antenna is severely crippled. Facts and nuances are irrelevant. In an attempt to point out the hypocrisy, John Gruber has recently been posting numerous examples of other phones showing the attentuation problem but, as with politics, it won’t matter. Perception is reality, and Apple has already lost the battle for consumers’ perception of the iPhone 4’s antenna.

I won’t be making any dire predictions about recalls or market failure for iPhone 4 because that is a bunch of nonsense. The iPhone still represents the best smartphone on the market and most consumers know this, even as the Android mob insults their potential customer-base and gabs up their own superiority. My point isn’t that Apple has failed with the iPhone, it’s that the discussion has become so political that the discussion is driven more by partisanship than market forces. The market forces, which will likely continue to favor Apple, are largely irrelevant, just as law and policy are often irrelevant in American politics.

The iPhone antenna problem has become the political equivalent of gay marriage. Rather than open, honest debate about the issue, the public sphere descended into two camps, each promoting their own brand of lunacy. At first, this was a discussion about Apple, mobile phone design, and how this affects consumers in the real world. Some smart people chimed in on the problem using terms like “detuning” and “attenuation” but, over time, it turned into a pissing match in which factions like Gizmodo were more interested into turning this into a public defeat for Apple.

Had Jobs at least pretended to be concerned in the beginning, the whole thing may have remained a technical discussion rather than a vitriolic political circus headed up by Michael Arrington in a leotard flying trapeze and Jason Chen juggling stolen prototypes while riding a unicycle. But now the Apple haters feel more self-righteous and more inspired than ever. As with American politics, even a minor win can embolden the most ill-conceived of factions. Although most people still plan to buy an iPhone 4, myself included, I do know of one individual — a normal consumer, not a Gizmodo or TechCrunch reader — who was scared off by the antenna problem. No, he didn’t buy an EVO or a Droid X, he bought an iPhone 3GS. That too is the nature of politics: the public, when subject to demagoguery, is unpredictable.

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