OK, here’s the scoop, in a less techno-babbled/marketing mumbo-jumbo/lawyer-powered manner.  Cell phones use radio signals.  You probably knew that already.  Radio signals require antennas.  You probably knew that, too.   The problem with the iPhone 4 is pretty simple.  Hold it wrong, and you ground out the antenna.

Past phones had an antenna sticking up from the top of the phone, or had one you could extend for use.

Radio signals used by cell phones are in the same bands, or higher, as microwaves.  Yeah, like in your microwave oven!  Since microwaves can cook stuff, it’s not a good idea to have them zapping your brain every time you use the phone, so the FCC developed standards to reduce exposure.  Now, there are no currently accepted scientific studies that indicate any danger from cell phone usage, and the industry will tell you they are perfectly safe, but it’s good to err on the side of caution with stuff like this.  You can read a good explanation, not overly technical, here. Earlier incarnations of the iPhone, and most other current phones, have the antennas embedded inside the case, near the bottom of the phone, away from the user’s brain.  By moving the antennas outside the case, Apple has opened up a can of electromagnetic worms.

Here’s the problem:

This is the lower left side of the phone, as you look at the screen.  The black band separates the two antenna systems from each other.   You can see the layout of the antenna systems in the top picture.  There is another break between the two antennas on the top of the phone, but since few users touch the top of the phone in normal conversation, it’s not generally a problem.

Holding the phone as shown in this picture from PocketLint.com shows how the antenna system for the phone call is being shorted to the WiFi-BlueTooth-GPS antenna by the users palm.  Imagine the mirror image of this photo, and notice where the users fingers are located.  A person holding the phone in their right hand  still has a good chance to ground out the antenna.

Grounding out antennas is bad.  It’s very technical to explain, so I won’t go into it here, but antenna design is very critical to the proper operation of cell phones.  The signal from a cell phone is very weak, and anything that reduces that signal is a bad thing.   In an area where there are a lot of cell sites, and the user is never very far from one, an iPhone 4 owner might never notice any problems.  In areas where the cell site footprints are much larger, like here in Visalia, the greatly reduced signal from a grounded-out antenna could be a significant problem.

The solution?  Get a case.  That way you can’t ground out the antenna, and you can enjoy all the new features of the latest Apple money-grab… er, …  innovation in phone technology!

If you want a more technical explanation of what happens to a radio hooked up to an antenna that is grounded or shorted, ask your friendly HAM radio operator.  He (or she) will tell you all about it!