By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
July 15, 2010

Invites reporters on short notice to Cupertino for an extraordinary press conference

After three weeks of mixed reviews, user complaints, short-tempered e-mails, class-action lawsuits, falling share prices and ribbing from late-night comedians, Apple (AAPL) seems to have woken up to the fact that it has a problem.

On Wednesday afternoon its PR staff began contacting reporters to invite them to a special event Friday at 10 a.m. PDT (1 p.m. EDT) in its Cupertino, Calif., headquarters.

Topic: The iPhone 4.

No other details were forthcoming. But that was enough to launch a flurry of speculation that the company — and perhaps Steve Jobs himself — was finally going to get in front of a controversy that threatened to spin out of control.

It started as simple and relatively minor technological glitch.

It turns out that the steel bands that surround the new iPhone and serve as the device’s antennas have the radio equivalent of an Achilles Heel. If you make contact with the gap that separates the antenna’s two halves, the phone can lose signal strength and, in certain circumstances, drop calls and data connections.

Apple might have defused the issue if it had addressed it immediately.

Instead, Steve Jobs issued a widely circulated e-mail suggesting that it was a user’s fault for holding the phone the wrong way or not buying a case. His PR staff followed up with a “Dear iPhone 4 Users” letter that blamed the problem on the formula used to calculate how many bars of signal strength to display — an explanation that satisfied no one.

On Monday, a “can’t recommend” notice in Consumer Reports alerted the mainstream press, and by Wednesday Wall Street analysts were calculating the cost of a Toyota-style recall.

Meanwhile, rumors have begun to circulate that Apple is quietly addressing the problem in its factories, applying a non-conductive coating to the external antennas on the new phones it ships.

What Apple plans to do on Friday is anybody’s guess. A mea culpa? A software fix? A hardware adjustment? A free case?

A recall seems unlikely, but at this point, nothing is off the table.

Fortune will be live-blogging the press conference and we’ll be monitoring events from the East Coast. As soon as we know something, you’ll know it too.

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[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]

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