Last year I waited in line for the new iPhone, which you will recall was launched on a Friday at 6 pm. I got in line at 3 pm and was able to get my phone and activate it without any problems, although there were some people who had trouble.
When the new 3G iPhone was announced I was intrigued, but figured I’d avoid the first day rush and let things die down before I switched over. But a couple things made me change my tack. First, I told my VSO (a/k/a ‘very significant other’) I’d give her my old iPhone when I upgrade. Recently, her phone’s battery starting acting up so she’s needing to make a move. Second, I thought about how much fun it was sitting in the line last year (I know, I’m weird). And lastly, I figured that, with an 8 am launch, not that many people would get in line before 6 am. This is New Orleans, after all.
So yesterday morning I got up early and scootered over to the AT&T store. Amazingly, there were as many people as there had been when I got in line last year. I wound up sitting next to a cool guy named Jesse, who is a writer. We had a great time talking about all kinds of things, while AT&T employees handed out water bottles and smiled cheerfully. The nice woman who bought my house was in line ahead of us and came over to say hello. She told me that she had gotten engaged and I gave her a big hug and felt good to learn that the new owner was very happy. The iPhone thing that brought us all together seemed secondary.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t feeling well because I had been swimming the night before and got water in my ear. So I was getting kind of woozy and pain was starting to develop. Also, I was overly-hydrated (thanks to the generous water supply), thinking how nice it would be if there was a bathroom close by, but there wasn’t. Then the friendly AT&T guy, who had earlier asked us what model of iPhone we intended to buy, came over to say that I probably wasn’t going to be able to get the 16 GB black model. He said they had plenty of white ones, but only 20 of the black ones.
I started to think about having to wait another 45 minutes (or more) just to get into the store. Why wait in line to get something that isn’t exactly what you want? I knew that Becky wouldn’t want me to do that, especially when I didn’t feel well. And especially if I could probably just come back in a few days and get the black one then.
So I scootered home (by now it was 8:30 am). At 9 am I sat down to my computer and I found out that the whole iPhone 3G launch was turning into a massive disaster. People who bought new iPhones couldn’t activate them in the stores, and were told to go home and do it there only to find out that they couldn’t make the phones work. People, like me, who had the old iPhones and bought new ones often found that they paid more money for a new phone that didn’t work. And then there were the people who didn’t want a new phone, but just wanted to download the new 2.0 software. In many cases, they wound up with a non-functioning phone too.
Fortunately, my friend Billy tipped me off about a secret way to download and install the software yesterday so I have the new software on my old phone. And, even more fortunately, the phone works. Becky and I went for some ice cream late in the day and on the way we stopped in to the AT&T store, which was by then not busy at all. I spotted one of the nice guy who had told me that I wouldn’t be able to get the black phone, and asked him if they had any phones left. He looked pretty demoralized as he told me that they had sold all the phones. I asked him if there were problems with the activation, and the corners of his mouth dropped even lower and his shoulders came down too as he nodded his head.
I felt bad for him. Earlier in the day he had been so upbeat, and was sharing the joyful anticipation of the crowd. But obviously that crowd’s joy had turned to anger and frustration and that had taken a toll on him. Apple screwed up big time. The early word is that their servers couldn’t handle the load.
I’m not an engineer so I can’t say how they might have managed their servers better. But, to me, the core problem wasn’t an engineering problem, but a hubris problem. Apple wanted to do too many things at once. Last year they had some server problems, and they were only rolling out the iPhone in the United States. This year they were rolling out the iPhone across the entire world. And they weren’t just rolling out a new phone; they were rolling out the new 2.0 software and that required every old iPhone user to essentially reactivate their phone. And if that all wasn’t enough, Apple was also cranking up their new MobileMe service, which was a server based system.
I can’t for the life of me figure out why Apple didn’t roll out the 2.0 software a week or two ago. And they should have rolled out the MobileMe stuff two weeks after the new iPhones came out. Well, actually that part might wind up happening after all.
Apple’s strong suit has always been its careful approach to putting things out. Maybe the euphoria of its stock climb and all the positive press has clouded their judgment. That’s usually what happens when hubris gets the better of you.
And me? I learned that while it’s nice to meet people in line, it’s stupid to buy something on the first day that it comes out. I really don’t need a new iPhone, but when I do finally get decide to get one, it’ll be at my convenience and on my terms.
Update: Seth Godin, the well known marketing guru, offers Apple some thoughtful suggestions on how to better manage the ‘scarcity problem.’