Believe it or not, one of the most important parts of a mobile phone — the antennae — is also the most low-tech. There might be a hundred-million-transistor CPU at the heart of everything and a state-of-the-art Retina Display on the front, but the antennae for GSM, LTE, WiFi, and Bluetooth, are simply dumb pieces of metal.
This is how Antennagate came to pass: Despite the iPhone 4 being a consummate fondleslab of bleeding-edge gadgetry, its antenna was just a piece of (very attractive) metal — and when your water-filled, fleshy fingers touched the metal, it attenuated (weakened) the signal and resulted in dropped calls. Devout followers were outraged by the fact that an Apple device could be defeated by such material, mundane means, and eventually Steve Jobs was forced to hold an emergency press conference. This is where Jobs demonstrated the infamous “death grip” required to make a call on the iPhone 4, and also where he explained that every smartphone has similar issues.
Fortunately, though, for Apple and every other mobile device maker, there’s finally an alternative to normal antennae: RF MEMS — or, if you prefer the complete tongue-twister, radio frequency microelectromechanical systems. RF MEMS, as the name suggests, are semiconductor chips that can alter their physical (mechanical) state. In the case of an antenna, RF MEMS can be used to make antennae that automatically tune and re-tune themselves to both incoming and outgoing signals.
In other words, if you put your finger on an RF MEMS antenna it can automatically re-tune itself so that no calls are dropped. Furthermore, RF MEMS can react to atmospheric conditions and re-tune your phone’s radio to improve 3G and LTE data throughput (by up to 40%, apparently). Most importantly, though, RF MEMS paves the way towards devices with just a single antenna and transceiver.
As you’re probably aware, modern smartphones have an insane number of radios — GSM, 3G, CDMA, W-CDMA, LTE, Bluetooth, WiFi, and even FM and TV radios in some cases. Every single one of these has its own silicon circuitry, and usually its own antenna too. With RF MEMS, all you need is a single antenna and transceiver. Much more space efficient.
Finally, lest you think this all sounds too good to be true, RF MEMS is already shipping in commercial products. According to iSuppli, a company that tears down and reverse engineers computers, theSamsung Focus Flash contains a RF MEMS chip made by WiSpry.
WiSpry, which was showing off its RF MEMS wares at CES 2012, refused to confirm iSuppli’s findings — but if it really has landed a deal with Samsung, 2012 could finally be the year where dropped calls become a thing of the past.