It's not every day that a major OEM like Apple will highlight a new smartphone's antenna in a highly publicized unveiling. Of course, when your new smartphone is the iPhone 4, and both the previous models of your device (3G and 3G S) are infamous for their inability to maintain a call, it's probably prudent that you should say a little bit about what you're doing to remedy the problem. That's just what Steve Jobs did when he unveiled the iPhone 4 at Apple's World Wide Developers Conference this week.

In its promotional materials for the new phone, Apple continually boasts that the iPhone 4 will "change the way we communicate forever." The company is probably referring to its new video calling feature, FaceTime. But what iPhone users around the globe hope they're referring to is something much less grandiose; most iPhone users just want to make and maintain a simple phone call. That alone would constitute a major change in the way iPhone users communicate.

Good Use of Space
Dermot O'Shea, director for Taoglas, an Irish provider of antenna solutions, says that by putting the antenna around the outside, Apple has tackled one of the biggest challenges facing handset manufacturers, which is that there just isn't a lot of available space for placing the antenna.

"So, while everybody tries to slim down and make the devices smaller, you need to use whatever space is available, and I'm sure that's probably the only place they had left," O'Shea says.

He's probably right. In a video on Apple's website, legendary designer Jony Ives remarks that design of the iPhone 4 began with two opposing goals: give the phone more features but also make it smaller. 

O'Shea says Apple's use of a stainless steel antenna actually goes back to early days of cell phones, when stainless steel was the most common antenna material used. The reason OEMs have changed materials in recent years is to save on space. Given that the stainless steel band that wraps around the iPhone 4 acts both as an antenna and a protective enclosure, Apple has leveraged steel for its utility while not giving up any additional space.

“In fairness, the cellular antenna – it looks like it goes all the way around the phone, so it looks like they’re getting a lot space out of the antenna … I think the reception challenge they would have is on the lower 850 MHz frequency that AT&T uses,” he says, noting that the thinness of the antenna could still lead to dropped calls on that frequency.

While the antenna itself may make good use of space, O'Shea wonders how Apple has dealt with exposure issues that might arise with an antenna that comes in contact with the hand.

"Your antenna is now very exposed. What happens when you hold the phone with your hand? Your body would have serious effects on any antenna," he says, adding that FCC rules for safety reasons also address where antennae are placed in handsets.

Bigger is Better
Roger Entner, senior vice president of Research and Insights, Telecom Practice for Nielsen, was dismissive of any concerns about the antenna's safety.

"The difference between the distance of the antenna from the head when mounted on the side of the device, and the distance of the antenna from the head when mounted on the back of the device is trivial," he says. "The device is mostly receiving anyway. And those signals go through us on a regular basis, and it's passive when receiving." 

Entner had nothing but good things to say about the new design and says it should mean good things for iPhone users. 

"I think it's an ingenious design... If we keep everything else the same, a larger antenna has always, always had a significant positive impact on RF performance, and size-wise this antenna rivals satellite phone antennas," he says.

June 24
The world won’t know the effect the new antenna will have until the iPhone becomes available on June 24. It's anyone's guess whether it will "revolutionize" calling for the disgruntled iPhone users or confirm that AT&T’s network is to blame for poor calling. Consensus seems to be growing the design is indeed unique; now it’s time to discern whether unique translates to improved performance.

O’Shea of Taoglas says that regardless of what kind of performance the new iPhone gets from its antenna upgrade, the value of an antenna cannot be underestimated. “A lot of companies, when they design a product, they won’t think about the antenna. But I can guarantee you, the second time they design one, it’s the first thing they think about. It’s the most common point of failure with customers looking for network approval in North America.”