How long did Apple know about the iPhone 4’s antenna issue?  Sources are reporting that Apple engineers knew about the fault anywhere from one to two years before the product’s launch.  The Wall Street Journal reported that Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO, chose to go forward with the design.  Jobs is famous for preferring gadgets that are aesthetically pleasing.  In this case, however, the go-ahead to use the flawed antenna design has resulted in a blow to the iPhone 4’s credibility.  The phone still outsells supply, but it has created numerous uncharacteristic problems for the company and for AT&T, the phone’s exclusive network.

The recent departure of Mark Papermaster, the head of Apple’s iPhone and iPod division, coincides with the antenna troubles.  This has led to speculation that Papermaster was responsible for the decision to use the new antenna design.  However, the Daring Fireball reported that the problem with the external antenna losing signal if human skin contacted the lower left section of the steel band was filed two years ago.  That’s nine months before Papermaster began working for the company.

The antenna itself is, for the most part, a good antenna.  It’s a stronger signal carrier and even gets signals in places previous generations of iPhones could not.  Because it’s an external antenna, it allows the iPhone 4 to be physically smaller while having a larger battery.  This increases the time between charges.  Finally, it makes the iPhone 4 look pretty.

To try to alleviate some of the bad publicity Apple has received over the bug, Jobs is offering free bumpers to all iPhone 4 customers.  This solves the problem by preventing human skin from contacting the antenna.  It is a simple fix for customers, but it reduces the appearance of the iPhone to that of any other smart phone.  This further reduces its iconic status symbol qualities for those who prefer all things Apple, and it does not address the fundamental hardware engineering issues at play.