In Apple’s press conference last Friday, the company deflected blame for the faulty antenna on the iPhone 4 by painting a picture of a market replete with problematic smartphone antennas, specifically naming phones made by Samsung, HTC and Research In Motion (RIM).

The OEMs immediately shot back, saying Apple was misrepresenting and exaggerating the scope of the problem. Motorola called the claims “disingenuous;” RIM called them “unacceptable” and Nokia said that it prioritizes antenna performance over physical design if they are ever in conflict.

With both sides taking pot shots over what could be a serious, industry-wide problem, antenna and radio frequency (RF) experts disagree on the scale and seriousness of the issue. While there appears to be consensus on the fact that hands can and do interfere with a phone’s antenna performance, disagreement abounds about the scale and scope of the problem.

Earl McCune, a Silicon Valley consultant with more than 35 years in RF/wireless design and development, says Apple’s iPhone 4 isn’t the first device to suffer from severely degraded strength when held by users.

“Antennas being affected by hands is an industry-wide problem,” he says. Though he admits that the iPhone 4’s external antenna makes it especially vulnerable to disruption, McCune maintains that any antenna, whether it’s in a cell phone or television set, will have its signal interrupted by nearby objects.MicroTac

“Most of the cell phone antennas are physically embedded inside the phones, but antenna performance still does radically change when you hold the devices,” McCune says. “I’ve seen it on many phones.”

Calling the issue an “almost impossible problem with an internal antenna,” McCune expressed doubts that decrease in signal strength caused by users hands was really a negligible problem, as claimed by some experts. 

“The best way to not drop a call is to have the antenna positioned to receive the most amount of signal that it can, and that’s on the outside of the phone. As soon as the marketing people said you had to have the antenna on the inside of the phone, the possibility of interference became unavoidable,” he says.

If McCune had his way, cell phone antennas would look something like the Motorola MicroTac, a phone McCune says wasn’t a hit with Motorola’s marketing department because of its looks. “Do you want the phone to look good or do you want it work good and get creative about putting the antenna on the outside of the phone?” McCune asks.

While McCune sees old-school external antennas as the solution to the industry’s antenna woes, ABI Research analyst Lance Wilson doesn’t think they make much of a difference. “Even external antennas are not even very effective because they’re close to the head and hand and are prone to breaking off,” he says. “There’s some degradation of performance [with an internal antenna] but that has to be qualified by whether it inhibits the use of the phone.”

Wilson says the optimal cell phone antenna would look something like a phone connected by a cable to a free-standing antenna that a user would hold above their head. The example is only a hypothetical one Wilson gives to demonstrate the necessary compromises between functionality and performance.

“When the switchover came between retractable and internal antenna, there was a big debate on whether the internal would be good enough,” he says. “This problem is not new. It’s always been with us.”

Cell phone antennas are comparable to the antennas used to improve reception from broadcast television signals, says Murray Shattuck, a former antenna designer who manages electromagnetic simulation technology at Applied Wave Research.

“Cell phone antennas are kind of like rabbit ear antennas: If you grab the antenna sometimes you get better reception and sometimes you get worse,” he says. “The same kind of thing is happening here.”

Apple’s decision to put the antenna on the outside of the phone where it would come in contact with the user's hand made it particularly susceptible to signal degradation, Shattuck says, but the rubber bumper touted by Apple to solve the problem will make the phone’s antenna performance comparable to other smartphones with internal antennas.

“Most phones would react similarly to the iPhone 4 once it has the plastic ring around the outside,” he says.

So far, at least 8,500 iPhone 4 users have called into Apple Care to complain about the issue, according to Wireless Week estimates based on figures provided by Apple. While that’s just 0.55 percent of the 1.7 million iPhone 4s sold in the first three days after launch, it caused a good deal of ruckus within the industry.

Stu Sanders, principal member of Sanders RF Consulting, isn’t sure the problem with the iPhone 4 antenna is a genuine issue. “If I had to put my hand in a big mitten and then hold the phone six inches from my head in order to make a call, then it would be a problem,” he says.

Sanders says the issue comes down to a question of degree. While he agrees with Apple’s contention that all devices suffer some amount of signal degradation when held by users, Sanders measures the decline as a matter of degrees, not total loss of connectivity as sometimes happens with the iPhone 4.

“This happens with a lot of different cell phones but you’re not aware of it,” he says, arguing that the issue with the iPhone 4 may have gone unnoticed if it weren’t such a high-profile device and Apple hadn’t drawn attention to its external antenna. “It’s an issue of perception.”

Whether physics or perception, Apple’s sales hardly seem to be taking a hit. The company is calling the iPhone 4 the “most successful product launch in the company’s history,” a fact that is sure to be supported in the company’s earnings announcement today. Given that most consumers are right-handed and use cases for their devices anyways, making the antenna flaw a non-issue, Apple’s “antennagate” may very well blow over before too long.