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Apple Hires Antenna Engineers. Really. 417

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the you're-holding-it-wrong dept.
kangsterizer writes "Sometimes, news items are just about a good laugh. You may or may not like Apple, but the way it has been handling its antenna issue has been like a small tech soap opera — Steve Jobs, the CEO, saying 'not to hold the phone that way,' rumors of software issues, and the latest but most crunchy part, since the antenna issue has been widely discovered, on 23 June, several 'antenna engineer' positions opened up at Apple. Seems someone got fired: Antenna engineer job position 1, Antenna engineer job position 2, Antenna engineer job position 3." I just figure they did all their testing in California, where AT&T dropping calls is as common as $4 coffees.
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Apple Hires Antenna Engineers. Really.

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  • Messed up links (Score:2, Informative)

    by wolrahnaes (632574)

    The second and third links both point to the same URL as the first.

  • by Culture20 (968837) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @09:23AM (#32744102)

    I just figure they did all their testing in california where AT&T dropping calls is as common as $4 coffees.

    Shouldn't they cost more than $4 in Cali?

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by jeffmeden (135043)

      Believe it or not, some people still drink plain, black 12 oz coffees. The poor ones that can only afford $4!!! HAHAHAhahahahaaha. ha?

    • by trapnest (1608791)
      Yeah, I wasn't sure what point was being made either. :\
  • by Alcimedes (398213) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @09:24AM (#32744122)

    That must have been a really, really, really awkward conversation.

    Although to be honest, I wonder if this is Apple's secrecy coming to bite them in the ass. If you are uber careful about how many phones you have out in the field, you're a lot less likely to run into scenarios where your product fails in real world situations.

    beta testing, google does it for a reason.

    • by hedwards (940851) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @09:31AM (#32744236)
      Because it's too expensive and time consuming to remove the word "beta" from the website?
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        You're being facetious, but you're probably not that far off the mark... not that it's too expensive to actually remove the word, but because it could be too expensive to remove the word if things go pear-shaped and some corporate entity that's using the service loses all their work/documents. By keeping the word Beta there, they discourage people from relying on it for money-making purposes, and that in turn discourages idiots from trying to sue them when it breaks and they lose a day's pay. And even if so

    • by Culture20 (968837)

      beta testing, google does it for a reason.

      And they'll never stop beta testing anything. Ever. ;D

    • by omnichad (1198475)

      They tried that, but they just kept getting lost or stolen.

    • by Kijori (897770)

      Although to be honest, I wonder if this is Apple's secrecy coming to bite them in the ass. If you are uber careful about how many phones you have out in the field, you're a lot less likely to run into scenarios where your product fails in real world situations.

      I think you're right that this issue was not discovered because of Apple's secrecy. If you remember, when they gave their staff phones to test they didn't want people to realise there was a new iPhone about - so they disguised them as iPhone 3s. The 3G didn't have the metal band, so the test models either didn't use one or - my guess - had it hidden under a fake iPhone 3 cover, meaning that this issue never came up.

    • by Yvan256 (722131) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @10:06AM (#32744896) Homepage Journal

      Completely unrelated, but do you realize that even VHS tapes must have gone through beta-testing?

    • by ballwall (629887) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @10:07AM (#32744922)

      Well, they probably did test, but their testing apparently included a case that looked like the iphone 3gs to hide the fact that someone was out using a new iPhone. I'm wondering if that's why they didn't discover the issue sooner. None of the testers were using bare phones.

    • by Dihce (1845556) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @10:41AM (#32745514)
      The reason they didn't detect the issue is because all of their phones where in cases to protect their identity. so yeah, it's definitely biting them in the ass
  • by RMH101 (636144) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @09:26AM (#32744152)
    ...must be left-handed
  • Reading into it? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by _merlin (160982) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @09:26AM (#32744158) Homepage Journal

    Someone got fired, or they just realised that you can't expect it to work properly if you don't hire experts. Reminds me of all the issues with noise in the G5 towers getting onto the supply rails and then into the audio I/O and Firewire power that lead to them hiring analog electronics experts to fix it. When I first read that the stainless steel surround was an antenna, I predicted these kinds of problems - you can't expect an antenna to maintain tuning while allowing a meatbag to touch it, especially when you need to be able to tune several microwave bands from hundreds of MHz to GHz. The laws of physics are against you, and any engineer should be able to point that out. Other handsets have issues where your hand can obstruct the signal, but the iPhone 4 is unique in allowing you to place things in galvanic contact with the antenna, which has a far bigger effect on its RF performance.

    • by random coward (527722) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @09:29AM (#32744194)
      So how likely was it that someone in marketing thought it would be "cool design" to have a visible antenna on the outside of the unit?
      • by afidel (530433) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @09:56AM (#32744700)
        You mean like Steve Jobs? Very likely.
      • Re:Reading into it? (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Enderandrew (866215) <enderandrew@gm[ ].com ['ail' in gap]> on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @09:56AM (#32744704) Homepage Journal

        You have metal around the case to bring the front and back pieces together. Why not make that piece of metal useful?

        Sounds like reasonable engineering to me, except for the fact that it ended up introducing a new problem.

        • by jeffmeden (135043) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @10:13AM (#32745032) Homepage Journal

          Because that piece of metal is only useful as an antenna when someone's not grabbing hold of it. Even close counts when it comes to RF (try walking around an FM radio with marginal reception), but grabbing the thing with your hand is going to *wreck* it. Apparently Steve wanted too much for it to look like a Leica camera (whose stainless steel bodies were, surprisingly, *not* doubling as antennas) and too little for it to work in every possible situation (like being held by a sweaty person.)

          This is only reasonable engineering if function follows form. I try not to bash apple, I really do, but in this case it's painfully obvious what they are after when they "engineered" this thing.

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by newcastlejon (1483695)

            This is only reasonable engineering if function follows form. I try not to bash apple, I really do, but in this case it's painfully obvious what they are after when they "engineered" this thing.

            I agree wholeheartedly; design is not engineering. This was a design decision but the RF engineer in charge still didn't shoot down this proposal as soon as it was suggested.

            Industrial design is such a hit-and-miss affair simply because it's the intersection between two very disparate disciplines.

        • by Facegarden (967477) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @03:36PM (#32749838)

          You have metal around the case to bring the front and back pieces together. Why not make that piece of metal useful?

          Sounds like reasonable engineering to me, except for the fact that it ended up introducing a new problem.

          You don't design a billion dollar product based on what "seems reasonable". You design it based on the ideas of the best goddamn engineers you can find, and do exhaustive testing.

          The problem at Apple is that the higher-ups get so entranced in design work that they might push too hard to make their engineers "deal with it". If an engineer told steve jobs "no, you can't do that", Jobs would probably fire him and find and engineer that said he could do it, even if that engineer was either just covering his ass, or was too optimistic.

          And then they required all the testers to have covers on their phones to make it look like an iphone 3G, which masked the meat-to-antenna issue.

          gizmodo posted a good article on the issue yesterday: http://gizmodo.com/5575412/apple-design-vs-apple-engineering [gizmodo.com]

          It is systematic, not accidental.
          -Taylor

      • Wouldn't a thin plastic film prevent the problem without effecting the aesthetic appeal?

    • by CraftyJack (1031736) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @09:48AM (#32744536)

      When I first read that the stainless steel surround was an antenna...The laws of physics are against you, and any engineer should be able to point that out.

      Well, now we know the material selection criteria. Laws of physics...or sleek and shiny?

  • by Saishuuheiki (1657565) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @09:27AM (#32744166)

    Somehow I doubt it was the idea of an antenna designer to put it on the outside where one would hold it. Anyone with any antenna theory knowledge at all knows that your gain would then be changed easily based on how it was held by a conductor (eg, you)

    The only think you could blame the antenna engineer for is not properly stating what a bad idea it is.
    Heck, it's entirely possible they didn't have any antenna engineers and now realize that's probably idea for a product masquerading as a phone.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @09:50AM (#32744588)

      I hope they at least compensated for the capacitance of the human hand touching the antenna by using a varicap circuit to tune the antenna. (You use a longer-than-ideal antenna, add capacitance to compensate, then back off the capacitance if you determine that it's too high because somebody is touching the antenna.) I'd expect them to have something like that anyway because it's impossible to build an ideal antenna for such a broad range of frequencies.

      If they have a *software-controlled* varicap, they might be able to fix the entire problem in software by just pushing the capacitance higher when they determine that a human hand is bridging the antennas. So a software update might be possible if they have a good way to test the capacitance on the antenna with the existing hardware (or I suppose they could just watch for a sudden drop in signal strength and try adjusting up, see if it helps, then try adjusting down if it made things worse).

      • by Technician (215283) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @06:06PM (#32751290)

        (or I suppose they could just watch for a sudden drop in signal strength and try adjusting up, see if it helps, then try adjusting down if it made things worse).

        auto antenna tuners exist. There is no need to guess by trial and error. Simply measuring the antenna current and comparing the phase of the current will tell you the tuning direction needed. When the current is in phase with the voltage, the antenna load is resistive (in tune). When the current leads the voltage, the antenna is capacitive and needs less capacitance (tuned higher in frequency) and vise versa.

        Unfortunately, auto tuners for microwave frequencies are difficult to design due to the very short mechanical dimensions of the parts. Voltage tuned capacitors (diodes) are common in VHF and UHF, but not as common in microwave applications for tuning antennas due to their limited tuning range. A hand contacting a microwave antenna can tune it much further than the corrective auto tunning can correct it in most applications. Even if tuned to resonance, the new tuning to correct for the hand contact will still not have the impedance change corrected. Energy absorbed by microwave heating of the hand is energy not received or transmitted by the phone. Tuning is only part of the problem.

        Attenuation is a real problem at these frequencies. To demonstrate this, simply tape an orange near the LNB in a satellite antenna in the path of the feedhorn. Without de-tuning the feedhorn cavity, the huge loss in signal strength by absorption can be seen as a total loss of reception. Try placing your hand over the feedhorn while setting up your satellite TV dish. Active retuning of the feedhorn to resonance won't fix the total loss of the signal.

        HF for Ham radio and marine shortwave (2-30 MHZ) need larger components to tune mechanically larger antennas so those applications use mechanical relays to switch capacitors and inductors or motor driven capacitors and/or inductors.

    • by cdrudge (68377) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @10:05AM (#32744872) Homepage

      The only think you could blame the antenna engineer for is not properly stating what a bad idea it is.

      They did. They were ignored because form is more important then function (this is Apple remember). The product then launched. The engineers were then overheard saying "we told you so" in the halls one day. And now there are 3 positions that recently became available.

    • That's my bet (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Sycraft-fu (314770) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @10:53AM (#32745766)

      They probably didn't bother with any engineers for it. I would guess that in their phones they normally use off-the-shelf antenna designs. So I could see that they have no need for an engineering department. Also, when it comes to antennas for cell signals, there are some pretty well established designs/rules to use.

      So my bet is that the marketers started going wild. They figured it'd look at really cool if the phone was all glass, thin, with the antenna as a metal band running around it. That layout for antenna was generally ok, so a prototype was built. It was tested sitting on a desk, and worked fine. Things moved forward. However all testing was done in non-real circumstances, either sitting on a bench in a lab or using disguised prototypes, that didn't have the same structure as the final thing. Everything looked good, product launched, shit hit the fan.

      At no time was an actual engineer in this area consulted.

      I would say this is the most likely scenario. Not that there was some dumbass engineer that didn't know or whatever, but that there was NO engineer, that nobody with antenna design expertise was ever consulted. It was done because it looked cool, without proper thought given to all the functional constraints. A marketing decision, not an engineering one. Now, given the problems, they are hiring engineers to try and keep it from happening again.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by mea37 (1201159)

      ". . . based on how it was held by a conductor (eg, you)"

      Huh? I don't stand in front of an orchestra waving my arms around...

  • by petes_PoV (912422) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @09:27AM (#32744170)
    So candidate "X": how would you deal with RF absorbtion and detuning of a microwave antenna when brought into close proximity of a human body?
    < candidate answers, based on practical experience >
    Interviewer writes down answer, says "That's very interesting, next candidate please"
  • by genka (148122) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @09:28AM (#32744190) Homepage Journal
    Hands on experience is required
  • by drewhk (1744562) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @09:31AM (#32744234)

    iPhone noTouch

  • Most companies have a hard time recruiting any good RF engineering. It's not a 'digital' domain and the Educational System just plain isn't putting out many (any?) good RF engineers anymore. It isn't even something you can passably fake with 'SPICE' like some of the lower-frequency analog.

    I doubt if Apple can afford that kind of engineering. They can't even afford mechanical engineers with the skill-set to design a robust replaceable-battery-compartment into their products. (the most recent attempt I ca

  • Prototype fail (Score:2, Insightful)

    by damnfuct (861910)
    It sounds like they didn't have this problem while they were testing them in cases that look like iPhone 3s. Maybe apple will start shipping them with iPhone 3 cases?
  • Sure, you only get 4 colors in hires on an Apple, but what can you draw with a 40x40 grid anyway (except, maybe, a Mark Spitz retrospective).

    • by prionic6 (858109)

      I was expecting HiRes pics of the current apple antenna engineers. Or what's left over.

  • If it was me, I'd have said "We put a pair of headphones with an integrated microphone in that box, yet you insist on holding the phone up to your ear! How are you going to operate your iPad with one hand near your head? Do like I do, and use the headphones for total freedom when using your giant iPod Tou... err iPad."
  • Or they did all their testing with bumpers on the phones. If you have a piece of rubber between your hand, and the antenna, you don't complete the circuit.

    • Re:Bumpers (Score:5, Interesting)

      by trapnest (1608791) <janusofzeal@gmail.com> on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @09:56AM (#32744712)
      They did the testing with the iPhone 4 inside an iPhone 3GS case... so no one would know what it was.
    • by LWATCDR (28044)

      My guess is they did testing in an RF chamber. They never had anyone hold the phone during testing and then they put test phones in cases as a disguise.
      They just never did a valid real world test. More than one company has made that mistake. What is so funny is how everybody now is going duh...

      • Re:Bumpers (Score:5, Interesting)

        by tlhIngan (30335) <.slashdot. .at. .worf.net.> on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @10:19AM (#32745116)

        My guess is they did testing in an RF chamber. They never had anyone hold the phone during testing and then they put test phones in cases as a disguise.
        They just never did a valid real world test. More than one company has made that mistake. What is so funny is how everybody now is going duh...

        A good guess, actually, because when you're doing FCC testing, you pretty much use an instrumented RF chamber to gather field data. You can't have people in it for obvious reasons.

        Even in real world testing, you might not find it - after all, once this hit, people have tried to replicate the result, failed, then watched a dozen YouTube videos seeing how to replicate it. After seeing them, they have to purposely set their hands in one position. Other people, trying to see the effect, have dropped their phones. It really depends how you hold the phone - some people like ot hold the bottom and use leverage to hold it to their ear (results in problem - you have to "cup" the bottom), others hold the top and press their hands to their ear. The latter, except for those with the right hand geometry, probably can't figure out how to do it.

        Hell, I've seen phones where the radio locks up if you do *just* the right set of motions. One of my coworkers spent a week riding the commuter train with a phone, laptop, and debug hardware because that was the only reliable way to reproduce the issue. And you have 5 minutes because it happens in just one particular part, then you get off and have to ride it the other way to set up for the next round of debugging.

        For phone testing, there's tons of issues a limited testing won't find. The only way you'll find them is well, release it to the public

        • Re:Bumpers (Score:4, Funny)

          by LWATCDR (28044) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @11:45AM (#32746660) Homepage Journal

          Less of a guess than from experience doing a little testing myself.
          Sometimes people do the unexpected.
          A software example happened to my company many years ago.
          This was back in the DOS days.
          Our software had a file manager. There was a function to copy the file to the floppy and from the floppy.
          We where getting complaints that files where "unediting" themselves. This was actually impossible with the file structure we where using. We zeroed out the free sections of the file to help prevent curruption.
          Well the keyboard commands where crtl f crtl f to copy from the floppy and ctrl f ctrl t to copy to the foppy.
          We finally figured out that some people thought that they had to hit the ctrl f and t all at the same time.
          They where holding the f down long enough for the auto repeat to cause them to copy from the floppy and they never noticed the message.
          We "fixed" the issue by changing the hot keys in later versions and by adding a lot more warnings if you tried to copy an old file over a new file.
          Just figuring out what caused the unediting was a challenge since the support was all phone based.
          It is hard to make things easy.
           

  • "There's no reason to become alarmed, and we hope you'll enjoy your new 4G iPhone. By the way, is there anyone out there who knows how to design an antenna?"

    .
  • surely, the evidence is against that...

  • The only reason the old antenna engineers did what they did was because they were forced to by Apple marketing and industrial design groups. And the only reason the next ones won't make the same mistake is because of hindsight, not because the new ones will be somehow more competent than the old ones.

    Apple sounds like a horrible place to work. Every decision you make has to put aesthetics ahead of every other practical consideration. I bet you'd get fired for complaining too much about a problem early in

  • Clearly the marketing department is the end-all, be-all decision makers in a product design at Apple. As an RF engineer (I am) I would not be jumping up and down to work for Apple. Antenna designs are always a compromise between aesthetics and performance.

    I bet that the Apple phone worked just great in their corporate offices with an AT&T cell site right next door. The signal levels would be very high and you probably could have wrapped the phone in a 10 pound ham and the signal would have looked just g

  • Hammertime! (Score:5, Funny)

    by Urza9814 (883915) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @10:06AM (#32744900)

    Now all Apple needs to do is make a commercial with MC Hammer.

    "Can't touch this!"

    Best part is, they could use the same video - it's already people dancing in front of a white background. Just crank up the contrast until the people turn into silhouettes, and add some headphones.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2c4L4CPfQY8 [youtube.com]

  • by Tobyb (163448) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @10:21AM (#32745154)

    Disclaimer: I am an engineer (electrical test, in fact) so I'm a bit biased. But from the brief insights that we can get about the Apple development process, Jobs loves to keep different parts of the organization completely oblivious from each other. My guess is that the actual antenna engineers never had knowledge of the final design of the phone. The process guys designing the machining to make the external antenna probably didn't know they were making antennas. The only people that probably knew the whole picture was Jobs, Ive, and the usual group that is in that iPhone 4 video shown during the keynote.

    If statistically it is shown to be a huge problem as such to trigger a recall, the board should do its job and hold one someone in this high level team responsible. Obviously, it is a cultural thing with Jobs. He loves to get feedback of what is possible from the engineering staff and then ignore it. For example, the Mac Mini. He famously asked what was the smallest computer they could build at the time. He got feedback and then said make it 1" smaller in each dimension. Sometimes it works. I have done some of my best work for people who were similar, just unflinching in their demands. It is gratifying to complete such a project. However, this time taking industrial design over engineering backfired, and big time. Apple has been inching towards this day for a long time. For example, why no strain relief on the old Macbook MagSafe connectors? Aluminum backs on the original iPhone? I'm hopeful that this episode shakes up the culture and process a little bit. Enough to be cautious when necessary, but not to stifle their crazy industrial design creativity either.

  • by jollyreaper (513215) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @10:32AM (#32745356)

    BP is now hiring drilling engineers. There's never enough money to do it right the first time but there's always money to try to fix it the second time.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @11:22AM (#32746286)

    INTERVIEWER: "So you want the Antenna Engineer position?"
    GUY: "Yes."
    INTERVIEWER: "And you've heard what Stave jobs had to day on the subject?"
    GUY: "That people with problems shouldn't hold their phone that way?"
    INTERVIEWER: [winces] "Yeah, that. He didn't put it exactly that way. What -- what do you think about Mr. Jobs' response?"
    GUY: "I don't agree."
    INTERVIEWER: "What?"
    GUY: "...with the, um, consumers who think that idea isn't correct." [smiles]
    INTERVIEWER: "And what do you think would fix the problem?"
    GUY: "I would show people the correct way to hold the phone?"
    INTERVIEWER: [scribbles note on clipboard] "Thank you. You'll be hearing from us."
    GUY LEAVES
    INTERVIEWER: [picks up iPhone and dials] "Damn it" [adjusts grip] "This is Steve. We've interviewed one hundred engineers and ninety of them agree with Steve. Print the ad."

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