Steve Jobs Survives Gizmodo, But Not MiFi

Apple CEO Steve Jobs takes tremendous pride in his public performances, and it pays off. His product presentations are usually seamless and even hypnotic. Even today at WWDC, when faced with a crowd that already knew much of what he was going to say before he said it thanks to Gizmodo, which got ahold of an iPhone 4 prototype that was left in a bar, Jobs was able to highlight still-secret features like a high-resolution screen in a way that left his trademark effect of a crowd desperately desiring his new product.

But one glitch almost took Jobs down. He couldn’t connect his live iPhone demo to the network using Wi-Fi because there were so many Wi-Fi networks in the room. Jobs blamed his audience, saying his tech team detected 570 separate Wi-Fi base stations. Those include MiFi cards and Sprint’s new EVO 4G phone, which can create shareable Wi-Fi hotspots based on mobile Internet. There wasn’t a Plan B, it seemed, so Jobs resorted to telling people to put their laptops down on the floor and police each other. Apple employees started circulating through the audience asking anyone who was using a computer to turn off the Wi-Fi and stop using their machines.

The real problem, it seemed, wasn’t attendees connecting to the open Wi-Fi network, but bringing their own networks as backup — something that has become a necessity, especially for bloggers and reporters, as the Wi-Fi at conferences including Apple’s is almost always slow, crappy or nonexistent. (I’ll admit I had both a MiFi and an EVO 4G on me, though the latter was being saved for backup.)

“I think bloggers have a right to blog, but if you want to see the demos, we’re not going to be able to do it,” said Jobs from the stage.

The thing is, access problems from mobile devices are a point of weakness for Apple. AT&T, the iPhone’s network of choice, has notoriously bad U.S. 3G coverage, and probably 95 percent of people in the room had iPhones. As soon as Jobs started having network problems, the crowd (that had given him a standing ovation just for coming on stage) seemed to feel the thrill of poetic justice.

When Jobs ran into error messages and slow-loading pages from his demo phone, he called out “Scott,” to Scott Forstall, the company’s senior VP of iOS Software, “you got any suggestions?” Multiple audience members shouted back in response “Verizon!” — referring to the network that often has more reliable coverage, especially here in San Francisco. Jobs took the bait, breaking the fourth wall to reply, “We’re actually on Wi-Fi here.”

Jobs didn’t let the subject go, either, even after the presentation got back on track, taking every opportunity to complain about the Wi-Fi. It wasn’t clear exactly what the actual Wi-Fi issue was, but it seemed that his demo iPhone may have had trouble staying connected to the Wi-Fi network it was supposed to be attached to given there were so many other options around. (If anyone can better diagnose the problem let me know.)

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