The Case Program Ends, But What Did Apple Learn?

As Apple (s aapl) announced at its press conference regarding the iPhone 4’s antenna issues, the free case program it instituted as a means of addressing the problem comes to an end today, September 30th. Obviously Apple wants this day to pass relatively unnoticed, but I’d be remiss in my duties if I let that happen.

No, this day should be observed by Apple fans and detractors alike, because for a lot of people new to the company, it probably marks the symbolic end of the honeymoon period in the budding relationship. The iPhone is the first device from the Mac-maker for a lot of consumers, and the antenna issues with iPhone 4 have shown many of them that the shine can indeed rub off of this Apple.

There was a big kerfuffle, and the media duly reported the issues, perhaps even going a little farther than necessary because of the love/hate relationship we seem to have with Cupertino. Apple reportedly lost some sales, according to studies conducted by research groups, and their initial reaction leading up to the free case solution stands as a lesson in how not to handle a PR disaster. But is there really a lesson to be learned, and even if there is, did Apple learn it?

What was the real harm that came out of the debacle? Record sales? Millions of digital words produced by all of the web’s premiere tech news outlets, and even the traditional print and TV media? The only “loss” that came out of Antennagate was a theoretical one, an imagined degree of greatness slightly greater than the already great numbers the iPhone 4 delivered.

But Android (s goog) is catching up to Apple, the counter-argument goes. Surely, something like this will have a long-term effect on Apple’s reputation that will hobble the company in that ongoing race. Except that it takes a lot to burn a company as fire-proof as Apple. Certainly much more than a simple design flaw that doesn’t actually break or make useless the product it affects. Think about NVIDIA-gate before this, which was far worse in terms of the actual effects on products which had the issue.

While we probably won’t see anything as blatantly problematic as the antenna issue in future iterations of the iPhone, Apple walks away from the ordeal without having learned the crucial lesson that in consumer electronics, design must ultimately answer to function, and that customers shouldn’t be told they’re imagining things or using products wrong when they bring up a valid concern. In the corporate world, the only effective teachers are dollars and sense, and Apple’s don’t seem too concerned about what’s actually on the curriculum.

At the very least, take advantage of the case program well you still can. That’s costing Apple something, so it may be teaching the company something as well.

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