Papermaster and That Damn Antenna

I don’t know much more than what I wrote yesterday regarding Mark Papermaster’s ouster from Apple in the wake of Antennagate. I do have a few points to add, though.

Several readers asked whether this is proof that the iPhone 4 antenna is, in fact, fundamentally flawed. (Or as one put it, “fucked”.) No. Here’s the iPhone 4 antenna, in eight words: It’s a good design but has a flaw. The problem is the last four words.

Does Apple have a “make one mistake and you’re fired” policy? No. But, if the mistake is big enough, sometimes yes. But I don’t even know whether the iPhone 4 antenna is the only thing that led to Papermaster’s sacking.1 Ostensibly, Papermaster was a peer to Bob Mansfield in the org chart; Mansfield the head of Mac hardware engineering, Papermaster the head of mobile device hardware engineering. Here’s the PR from Apple in November 2008, announcing Papermaster’s hiring:

Apple today announced that Mark Papermaster is joining the Company as senior vice president of Devices Hardware Engineering, reporting to Apple CEO Steve Jobs. Papermaster, who comes to Apple from IBM, will lead Apple’s iPod and iPhone hardware engineering teams.

But it’s Mansfield, not Papermaster, who appears in Apple’s six-minute iPhone 4 promotional video — and that video was shot weeks (months?) before the iPhone 4 was unveiled. The other executives who appear in the video: Jonny Ive, Greg Joswiak, and Scott Forstall. Mansfield talks about the Retina Display, the advantages of its higher resolution, and the engineering behind it. Then at the end, Mansfield comes back to talk about the A4 system-on-a-chip — literally Papermaster’s area of expertise.

By the org chart, that should have been Papermaster in the video. Now, I don’t know — maybe Papermaster was invited to appear in the video but declined. Perhaps he’s not comfortable in front of a camera. And Mansfield is good. He’s not pretty, but he’s likable and has a great voice — a John Goodman-esque screen presence. But maybe Papermaster was already on the outs, and Mansfield was already overseeing the engineering of things like the Retina Display and the A4.

The good aspects of the iPhone 4 antenna:

  • It gets a stronger signal in most situations, and is able to hold calls in places where older iPhones couldn’t get any signal at all.

  • By going external, it saves space inside, allowing the iPhone 4 to be physically smaller while at the same time having a larger battery. This antenna is perhaps the single biggest reason why the iPhone 4 gets best-of-class battery life.

  • It looks great.

There’s one and only one problem with it:

  • It can lose signal when human skin touches a certain spot.

I know many people think that come next June (if not sooner), we’re going to see Steve Jobs on stage unveiling an iPhone 5 with a “revolutionary” new antenna that’s back inside the case.

I’d say it’s more likely we’ll see an iPhone 5 with an external antenna with all the same advantages of the iPhone 4 antenna, but without the problem.

Keep in mind that Apple’s product strategy is riskier than that of other companies. They don’t have a line-up of iPhones. They don’t roll new models out every three or four months. They do one new iPhone per year. It’s high stakes, and high pressure.

One last tidbit from an informed source: the bug on the “touching it wrong” signal loss issue was filed two years ago. This is not a problem they didn’t catch, or caught too late. So, on the one hand, clearly the fundamental antenna design predated Papermaster’s time at the company. But on the other hand, there was plenty of time to find a solution to the problem. I.e., it’s not that Apple should not have used an external antenna. It’s that it should have been even better.

  1. Pure conjecture on my part, but it could be that Papermaster is being held responsible for the white iPhone 4 debacle as well. It’s got to be somebody’s fault. ↩︎