When Apple is involved, you can be sure there will be hype. Some of it is Apple’s doing, for they are marketing geniuses. But much of it is from rabid bloggers and media. ‘Cos if you can work Apple into your headline, you’re sure to get eyeballs — those of Apple fans, and those of Apple haters. Win-win! So, I’ll get in on the fun by giving my two cents for today.
The big story today is the mysterious disappearing signal bars when holding the iPhone 4 in such a way that your hand touches all the antennas that surround the casing. Haters use it to denigrate the phone, fans are even a bit perturbed. Antenna experts have weighed in and generally say that it is true and it is happening, but it’s not a big deal. Steve Jobs has (probably unwisely) weighed in by saying “just don’t hold it that way” and Apple has released some unhelpful “well, they all do it” statements.
So, reality check from my perspective: my iPhone 4 does it when I’m at home. It doesn’t do it at work, where I get five bars of signal anyway. It still makes calls, and so far does it better than my iPhone 3G did. That’s the only thing I really care about. I had this problem with my previous iPhone, a Treo and a Blackberry. The signal fluctuated depending on how I held it — how often do you see people contorting themselves or turning in circles trying to get better signal? — and those phones never made headlines for this. This time, Apple promoted the steel casing as an improvement in antennas, which means their marketing fed into the story. Maybe Apple can tweak the display of the bars? Their signal displays are always the subject of compliant, whether on a phone or a wifi system.
I dimly remember, I think it was in the late 1960s or very early 1970s, that I saw a Bell System Picture Phone in downtown DC. It was a futuristic, rounded thing with a screen; to me it resembled the Martian ship neck and head from the War of the Worlds film. Decades later a number of companies tried to bring limited video to telephones, but they were all unsuccessful. Later still, video conferencing became available through computers via internet; every portable Mac comes with a built-in camera in its screen bezel. Still, how many people do you know that use it to make video calls?
Here we are, in the 21st century, carrying around tiny devices that let us do video calling. Will we? I doubt it. It is a great demo, but that’s all — at least, to a guy from my generation.
David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest [here via Jason Kottke] makes a very good argument for why this technology never caught on:
Good old traditional audio-only phone conversations allowed you to presume that the person on the other end was paying complete attention to you while also permitting you not to have to pay anything even close to complete attention to her. … Video telephony rendered the fantasy insupportable. Callers now found they had to compose the same sort of earnest, slightly overintense listener’s expression they had to compose for in-person exchanges.
Good old aural telephone calls could be fielded without makeup, toupee, surgical prostheses, etc. Even without clothes, if that sort of thing rattled your saber. But for the image-conscious, there was of course no answer-as-you-are informality about visual-video telephone calls, which consumers began to see were less like having the good old phone ring than having the doorbell ring and having to throw on clothes and attach prostheses and do hair-checks in the foyer mirror before answering the door.
I couldn’t possibly have said it better.
It’s worth noting that I am one of those people who doesn’t feel compelled to answer the door or pick up the phone when it rings. The idea that some stranger can make bells ring in my home and demand my attention is really shocking to me, and if I don’t want to interact with someone knocking on my front door, then dammit, I will ignore it. A video call is just one more step in that insanity as far as I’m concerned.