Breaking news! Apple admits to iPhone 4 antenna problems! Well, sort of. According to a press release issued by the company this morning, the iPhone 4 doesn't have a hardware design flaw - it has a software bug.

"We were stunned to find that the formula we use to calculate how many bars of signal strength to display is totally wrong," says Apple. "Our formula, in many instances, mistakenly displays 2 more bars than it should for a given signal strength."

In other words, when you see the phone drop multiple signal bars at a time, it's not losing its signal - it's adjusting its display to show you the correct signal.

But what of the fact that signal drops seem to occur when the phone is gripped in a certain way? Apple addresses this too, saying users were most likely in an area with weak signal strength to begin with, but didn't know it because the iPhone was incorrectly displaying four or five bars. "Their big drop in bars is because their high bars were never real in the first place," notes the announcement.

Apple says it will push out a software patch for the issue that incorporates the correct formula - that being AT&T's "recently recommended" formula for calculating the number of bars to display for a given signal strength. The patch will arrive in the next few weeks.

Patch Doesn't Fix Whole Issue

So that's it, then? Bug patched, problem solved?

Not exactly.

The Apple announcement doesn't address the more troubling aspect of the signal loss issues; when gripping the phone in a particular way, many are experiencing not just lowered bars, but dropped calls and data degradation. Apple says that there's probably not a good signal in these areas anyway and simply dismisses the appearance of signal loss as being related to the software bug. However, the areas in question where these losses occur are often places where older iPhones had no issues maintaining a signal, something that speaks to an actual hardware-related problem and one that can't be fixed via a software update.

Even more telling is the independent analysis performed by the popular hardware news site, Anandtech.com. In a series of extensive tests, the site's Brian Klug and editor-in-chief Anand Lal Shimpi put the iPhone 4's antenna through its paces, measuring its signal strength and signal attenuation in a number of scenarios, even comparing it to the older iPhone 3GS and the HTC Nexus One.

While they did find that the iPhone 4's visualization is flawed, as Apple is now admitting, they also discovered a second issue: adding a bumper case to the iPhone 4 allows the phone to function "on par if not better than other phones." Remove the bumper case and the phone performs worse. (And no, these tests didn't rely on the flawed visualization of signal bar strength - they used advanced software programs to get accurate data).

In fact, cupping the phone in the so-called "iPhone death grip" - the coin termed by bloggers covering the antenna issues - is directly related to the signal loss. "The result is that anything conductive which bridges the gap in the bottom left couples the antennas together, detuning the precisely engineered antennas," explains the site's authors. "It's a problem of impedance matching with the body as an antenna, and the additional antenna that becomes part of the equation when you touch the bottom left."

Or in layman's terms, human contact with the antenna degrades the signal, software bug or not.

That being said, their tests also revealed that, as Apple claims, the iPhone 4 antenna is remarkably improved, even performing better in areas where the 3GS would lose its signal and drop a call. This appears to back up Apple's statement that the iPhone 4's wireless performance is the best it's ever shipped.

Of course, that's if you're using a bumper case. A case which Apple conveniently sells itself - for the first time ever, mind you - in the Apple Store. It costs $30.

iPhone's Woes: Good for Android?

These issues, the discussions, and the negative publicity for Apple, while obviously not impacting the current sales of the iPhone 4 (it sold a record-breaking 1.7 million its opening weekend alone), may end up hurting the company in the long run. Apple has, to some, lost a bit of its credibility as a hardware maker whose devices "just work."

What's worse is that the early, downright glowing reviews from Apple's trusted set of journalists who were granted the first "hands-on" with the device, made no mention of what was obviously a very real problem with the iPhone 4. It was only when the legion of bloggers - or is that a nation, Mr. Steve Jobs? - got their hands on the phone was this problem uncovered. Going forward, mainstream consumers may find themselves less trusting of these "officially blessed" reviews and may delay their purchases until after the independent reviews are released. In the meantime, other companies have a window in which to lure those undecided shoppers away from Apple and to their latest and greatest phone, whatever that may be.

When the next iPhone launches, it will be interesting to see if Apple customers line up again in record numbers, as they did this year. Or if this time around, they will consider the alternatives for a change, like perhaps a device running the fastest-growing smartphone operating system to date (according to analysts at IDC), Google Android?

Image credits, orig. article: Anandtech.com