Why this year’s iPhone launch was very un-Apple

I remember standing in line last year for the iPhone. It was a momentous occasion. There was excitement in the air and people just having a great time waiting for 6 PM when the iPhone went on sale. People were camped out in lawn chairs and owners of shops came out to see what the fuss was about. They even brought us chairs from their stores to sit in and let us use their power outlets to recharge our laptops.

Contrast that to this year, when the much anticipated iPhone 3G was launched at 8 AM local time. I was in line (with a few hundred soon-to-be friends) at 8 AM when the “launch” started. After 2 hours we had barely moved 10 feet. Around 11 AM, we finally got reports that there were server issues. At first they said the issues were with iTunes software activating new iPhones, but then they quickly shifted the blame to AT&T’s servers.

The mood quickly went from upbeat and excited to tired and irritated. Standing in line, hour after hour, this year was a stark contrast from last year. At Lenox Square Mall in Atlanta, security guards wouldn’t even let people sit down (on the floor, or in mall-provided seating) even though we were mall customers waiting to spend quite a bit of money in their stores.

The whole atmosphere of this year’s launch was of disappointment, disorganization, inconvenience and irritation. Very un-Apple.

I know of at least 20 people around us in line who gave up and simply went home, disillusioned at the company they admired so much earlier that same day. I personally have mixed feelings about the competencies of both Apple and AT&T after such a botched event.

Last year, Apple was hurrying to get FTC approval and launch a brand new product with new technology to the world. It was much anticipated and they knew they were on a tight time frame. In spite of the very limited time to plan and the long lines (which seemed to be even longer than this year in most places), the event was overwhelmingly successful. Even though I didn’t get my 1st generation iPhone activated until after 10 PM, over 4 hours after I got it, I never even associated that with Apple. It was simply AT&T’s activation, a typically slow telecom company doing what they do best.

But when Apple and AT&T decided to subsidize the phones this year, and force in-store activations they should have known there were likely to be issues. As a developer and manager of enterprise-level applications, I’m shocked that AT&T and Apple did not sufficiently stress-tested their systems to ensure it could handle at least the same volume as last year.

I finally got my iPhone last night at 8:15 PM, over 12 hours after I got in line and 12 hours after they went on sale. Contrast that to last year, when I got to Lenox Square Apple Store at 8 AM and had an iPhone shortly after 6 PM, minutes after they went on sale.

This years iPhone launch was already complicated with in-store activations, which were enough to slow lines, but added to all the iTunes and AT&T server issues yesterday made me seriously question attending another launch event.

Apple is a master of creating emotion and excitement. They do it with their products, keynotes, launch events and even inside their products, which are typically elegant and just easy to use. Apple fanatics… err, I mean, customers… will spend any amount of money and wait in line (in the cold or rain) without complaining, just for the privilege of giving Apple their money or attention.

That changed on July 11, 2008. As I walked down the line as I left, I spoke with several people that had been in line for more than 12 hours for the new iPhone. The only reason most of them were still in line is simply the fact that they couldn’t imagine spending 12 hours in line and not having anything to show for it at the end of the day.

Apple is just a company and is bound to make mistakes, but I wonder if this is to become a recurring theme or if Apple will work harder in the future to ensure that product launches go smoothly. Only time will tell. One thing’s for sure though, if Apple launches iPhone 3.0 in July 2009, I won’t be in line.

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