It’s not about the bars or the antenna—but it is about PR.

Apple is certainly taking its lumps about the iPhone 4 antenna, and Apple’s competitors are no doubt loving the whole episode. But as Spencer Webb of AntennaSys so elegantly pointed out on This Week in Tech (two weeks before Consumer Reports dissed the iPhone), all you have to do is put a rubber case on the iPhone and the dropped calls will stop. You were going to put a case on your iPhone anyway, right?

Apple’s previous problem was having to admit that the iPhone iOS showed more signal-strength bars than it should have: but as Spencer Webb also pointed out on TWiT, that’s a complete red herring. There’s no such thing as two bars, or four bars. It’s digital, not analog. Back when phones were analog the bars mattered, but on digital phones bars are meaningless. You either have enough signal strength for a connection, or you don’t. Instead of bars, the signal indicator should be a big dot that’s either red or green. The only reason that phone companies continue to show the bars is because the public thinks bars still have meaning and demand that they be there.

We have created these reception problems ourselves. All tiny phones have congenital antenna problems, because the best antennas are big and long. Mobile phones used to have pull-out antennas, and reception would be far better if those still existed. But the public hated them, so they no longer exist. Yet we demand “five bars”.

All of which is to say that Apple has completely screwed up the public relations on AntennaGate. They could have said “bars are meaningless on digital phones,” but instead they apologized for the bug in iOS. They could have said “Human hands cause call drops on all smart phones,” but instead they pretended the problem didn’t exist. Now they’re providing free cases for all iPhone owners. This whole kerfuffle is one part technology and three parts PR.