BlackBerry: Smartphones Sans AntennaGate

blackberry_logo_preferred_colour_180px[1] When I first saw the antenna band completely surrounding the iPhone 4 during Steve Jobs’ initial presentation, I recalled a comment made to me by RIM co-CEO Mike Lazaradis after a RIM Annual General meeting a few years ago. And I should also mention that I personally have a history of dealing with rf and associated antennae during my days working as a physicist in the Magnetic Resonance (“MR”) research and commercial space where all MR spectrometers and imaging systems are embedded with what amounts to enclosed radio stations operating in the FM radio and conventional television channel frequency ranges.

LucasPoll_9800oriPhone4 LucasPoll.GreatAnswer

So I was skeptical about how that iPhone 4 antenna would work from the time of the initial announcement. And when fellow blogger and Twitter aficionado Luca Filigheddu took a poll earlier this week as to whether one would prefer a BlackBerry 9800 (the model that’s heavily speculated but not yet announced) or an iPhone 4 I could not resist the opportunity to  respond as shown above.

Three points:

  • Mike’s comment when he saw me holding a BlackBerry 8700 a few years ago with my hand wrapped around the upper left corner was to the effect that I should avoid having my hand around that area as that is where the rf antennae are located. But it’s pretty easy to hold your BlackBerry while avoiding one corner of the device. Yesterday to check out the “Jobs test” I took up the “death grip” challenge presented by’s Kevin Michaluk and found “if I death grip my Bold 9700 the bars stay no matter what”. Seems like the rf engineering has improved going from the 8700 to 9700.
  • From the rf physics point of view: Mike spent a lot of time at last year’s annual shareholders meeting (2009) talking about how RIM relies on internal basic physics research to assist in the design of BlackBerries, including an extensive discussion about their rf technology research. He is, after all, the energizer around the establishment of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics; while its researchers are free to pursue whatever research they see appropriate this investment is probably not totally altruism when it comes to understanding the physics behind wireless smartphones.
  • In my fifteen years’ experience with Magnetic Resonance instrumentation, perhaps the most frustrating aspect was to get the rf engineering right. You can get there (or we would not have the high quality images we see with today’s MRI studies) but you need to understand the physics behind it and have lots of patience.

After drafting the above commentary yesterday afternoon very late Friday put out a rather strongly worded statement from RIM co-CEO’s Jim Ballsille and Mike Lazaradis:

“Apple’s attempt to draw RIM into Apple’s self-made debacle is unacceptable. Apple’s claims about RIM products appear to be deliberate attempts to distort the public’s understanding of an antenna design issue and to deflect attention from Apple’s difficult situation. RIM is a global leader in antenna design and has been successfully designing industry-leading wireless data products with efficient and effective radio performance for over 20 years. During that time, RIM has avoided designs like the one Apple used in the iPhone 4 and instead has used innovative designs which reduce the risk for dropped calls, especially in areas of lower coverage. One thing is for certain, RIM’s customers don’t need to use a case for their BlackBerry smartphone to maintain proper connectivity. Apple clearly made certain design decisions and it should take responsibility for these decisions rather than trying to draw RIM and others into a situation that relates specifically to Apple.” [Author’s bold]

Bottom line: Steve Jobs may be a marketing genius but he ain’t no rf engineer or Ph.D. physicist. It’s all coming out in the iPhone 4. But even his marketing genius is degraded when he endeavors to justify the iPhone 4’s current problem by attempting to demonstrate rf issues with competitor products. “Bumper physics” does not solve the problem; not to ignore the resulting degradation of the overall appearance. It’s time for Apple to do their own antenna research, Steve.

Once iPhone 4 is finally available in Canada I don’t know that I’ll be rushing out for any special upgrade offer Rogers may come up with. And by then, maybe we’ll be seeing some new BlackBerry models, including those that are the subject of speculation.

P.S. –“Sans” – the French expression for “without”.

Full disclosure: Both Kevin Michaluk and I are on Rogers for our wireless carrier which offers a highly reliable 3G/HSPA+ service. Is there also an AT&T infrastructure issue involved here? We’ll only find out when iPhone 4 launches in Canada July 30. For completeness, the author has been the owner of a minuscule number of RIM shares since 1998.

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About Jim Courtney

Bringing over thirty years' experience in the sales, marketing and management of cutting edge technology businesses.

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5 Responses to BlackBerry: Smartphones Sans AntennaGate

  1. Michael Graves July 17, 2010 at 7:23 am #

    Let us survey what we've learned from this circumstance:

    1. Apple has limited in-house experience in RF design

    No surprise here. They are a one-time computer specialist company who have spent a decade transitioning to be a consumer electronics company (iPods, Apple TV.) Their internal culture supports a certain arrogance such that they failed to appreciate the significance of some of the technical specialties involved in cell phones.

    2. RIM is similarly imperfect

    While I am certainly no Apple defender, RIM has it's own strength/weakness mix to answer for. Early in 2008 I recall a firmware release for my Blackberry 8100 that was absolute garbage. I suffered through a period of about 6 months seriously considering buying something else, until something reliable was finally released. Then when I bought a 9700 I found its initial firmware to be on the flaky side, too.

    Oh, and their app store….just forgetaboutit. Not much there that I find useful. They will never have the broad range of applications found on the Apple or Android platforms.

    In the end these are dramatically difference companies, and their products cannot be directly compared. IMHO, the Blackberry is still a better phone, and that is primarily what I need.

    • Jim Courtney July 18, 2010 at 2:32 am #

      As for firmware upgrades I have never encountered an issue with an 8100, 8700. 8820, 9000 or 9700 (and have done at least one upgrade for each). They just did an minor (or some may call it bug fix) upgrade of my Bold 9700 which addresses a few minor issues. Other than you need to set aside about 45 min to an hour for the upgrade, all seems to be working fine. On the other hand my iPhone iOS4 upgrade also took about an hour.

      In response to a question at the RIM AGM Tuesday evening, they did confirm that BlackBerry 6 will be available for all trackball or trackpad BlackBerries in addition to those with touch screens (Currently Storm but what is this heavily speculated 9800?……)

      As for the App store, I have found some free apps that I use regularly but never used a paid app to date. As pointed out at the AGM, it has been possible to develop apps on BlackBerry for several years but being targeted at enterprise, many of those apps are proprietary to the individual enterprise and never make it to public availability. On the other hand RIM needs to work on improving the algorithm for making purchases – and apparently a new version of App Store is on the way – probably this fall.

      As for Michael's last statement and as one who has experience with both iPhone and BlackBerry, the BlackBerry is a two-way communications device (I do a lot of email, GMail, BBM, Twitter and other text activities with it) while the iPhone is fundamentally a one-way information delivery device. And, other than for its lack of a carrier-agnostic way to make Skype calls, BlackBerry has a much simpler algorithm for placing phone calls. I would conclude with "the BlackBerry is still a better communications device and that is primarily what I need".

      Bottom line: RIM cannot get BlackBerry 6 out quickly enough through all their 550 carriers; their App Store should see some improvements and if this 9800 is all it is claimed by the BlackBerry blogs to be, then it will be an interesting fall.

  2. James Body July 18, 2010 at 11:49 pm #

    I am still buying an iPhone 4, as soon as they become available on H3G-UK.

    Even with small imperfections, it is still an astounding feat of engineering (hardware nd software).

    For me the availablity of a wide range of excellent third party applications and support for developers is probably he most important criteria for selection.


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