John Paczkowski

Recent Posts by John Paczkowski

It Took Serious Hounding to Get Apple to Show “Black Lab”

Apple does not screw around with antenna design.

I know this because on Friday I was part of a small group of journalists given a tour of the company’s antenna design and testing facilities, which are as impressive and confounding to an outsider as you would expect them to be–massive anechoic chambers, CT scanners, prosthetic heads and hands filled with fluids designed to match the dielectric characteristics of the human body, all manner of RF measurement equipment and similarly equipped vans for field testing.

The facilities are referred to internally as “black labs,” because their purpose has never been publicly disclosed. Quipped an Apple PR rep, “The existence of this lab used to be secret. Now it’s not.”

And as Friday’s revelations went, that was perhaps the most interesting of all.

Because it’s not like Apple (AAPL) to pull back the curtain like this. Nor is it like Apple to make so many executives available to answer questions. Leading Friday’s golden-ticket tour, Ruben Caballero, a senior director of engineering responsible for antenna design. Also on hand and answering questions: Bob Mansfield, senior VP of Mac Hardware Engineering; Phil Schiller, senior VP of Worldwide Product Marketing; and Greg Joswiak, VP of iPod and iPhone Product Marketing.

That’s hardly the behavior of a company whose obsession with secrecy borders on monomania. And it says something about how much of an affront the criticisms of the iPhone 4’s antenna design have been to Apple.

“Right now the state of the art of the industry is that no one has solved this [attenuation] problem,” Steve Jobs said during the preceding press conference. The tour of Apple’s black labs bore that out. Caballero said the iPhone 4 spent two years in those labs before it was released to the public. Two years. The company tested the hell out of the device and any suggestion that it didn’t is ludicrous. Apple was clearly well aware that the iPhone 4 could suffer some signal degradation when held a certain way, but in its eyes, that is the original sin with which all cell phones are born. Let he who is without sin cast the first phone, right?

Of course, this is precisely what Apple wants me to say. And based on Apple’s unusually frank and detailed elaborations, it rings true. Smartphone antenna design requires compromises.

The trouble is, the public doesn’t expect compromises from Apple.