G-D Day

"This time you be the focus group, Dad."

For all the time she spends scarfing my iPhone, you would think that my daughter would be willing to accompany me on my Friday morning "3G Day" stakeout of the local AT&T store. Even dangling the prospect of her getting my first-gen model as a hand-me-down failed.

"I can't type fast enough on it, anyway," she complained. Suddenly the iPhone was deficient. "Ooh, is that Monkey Ball on there?"

"You can play it while on line with me," I said.

"No. I am not standing on a line with geeks. And, why doesn't Apple just send you one, anyway? Those Wall Street Journal and New York Times guys were already reviewing it days ago. Didn't Apple send them theirs?"

With teenagers, the simplest exchange can turn dire and ugly at any second. This conversation was not going in the direction I intended. So in the end, she slept in while Dad hit the pavement assuaging his ego with fantasies that those other, more deserving, columnists also had wiseass teen daughters.

Last year, I had slammed AT&T for shamefully bad in-store handling of the iPhone launch, so I felt obliged to test the state of their game under the new version's pricing and business model. My local store a mile away in Newark, Del., is fairly robust for a tiny strip mall. I sowed the ground earlier in the week with a pre-launch visit to ask about the Friday arrangements, availability, etc. A well-informed salesperson assured me that they would have an ample supply but to anticipate lines at this store. "We had guys in tents last year," he told me. Apparently, AT&T expected many uninformed customers to get in queues, so they planned to educate everyone on line about the two-year required contract and check their eligibility for upgrade pricing. This salesman felt confident that an upgrader like me would get a phone, because some share of the line would disappear quickly.

At 7 a.m., I drove up to find a fairly manageable line of about 20 people ahead of me. By the time the store opened at 8, the line had doubled. To their credit, AT&T staff worked the crowd well. They provided everyone with water bottles, checked existing accounts for eligibility, and had several people explaining plan intricacies very well. I was pleasantly surprised. But they were dead wrong about needing to filter out the unqualified. "Boy, you guys did your research," I heard one screener say with astonishment as she made her way down the line doing pre-sales interviews.

And my daughter was wrong, too. This was not a line of geeks. Perhaps the Jobs apostles were all at the nearby mall and its Apple store. But here, the new AT&T pricing model seemed to be casting a net far outside the usual early-adopter crowds. A number of families were here, calculating how much their multiple lines and high text messaging loads would cost. Ethnically, the diversity was almost picture perfect. Literally every major American ethnic group was represented equally in the line at 7 a.m. A lot of people mentioned being on family plans already that were costing them $150 or more a month, so the iPhone contracts were unremarkable. With the cost of the phone down to $199 (and about half of the people around me said they were buying that 8GB model) the final barrier had been lowered. Ridiculous as it may be to extrapolate from a single waiting line in a tiny Mid-Atlantic state, it looked to me as if everyone wants a piece of the cool now.

The AT&T staffers kept the line hydrated and informed, announcing when the 16GB black models were dwindling and then the white models. I was actually in the store to hear the staff banter over announcing that the entire inventory was depleted. In my store at least, the manager opted not to tell the line outside that now they really were waiting to pre-order a phone. I thought that move was unfair and exploitive.

Actually, by 10 a.m., it hardly mattered whether people had a phone in hand or not. It wasn't going to work. "3G Day" quickly devolved into G-D----it Day," as millions of newly minted iPhone owners came home with an iBrick. The well-known server outage and iTunes snafu at Apple started once I got into the AT&T store and had my helpful salesperson signing me up. After ten or more minutes trying to activate the phone, he sent me home to finish it with my own iTunes. In the interim, however, the sign-up process had discontinued service to my existing iPhone. As many others have recounted, I encountered timeout errors as soon as I tried synching. Again, to my AT&T store's credit, they responded to my call by suggesting I come back in to see if they could complete activation for me. By the time I got there, one of the managers had received a message from headquarters that no one was getting through to the servers. All customers were being sent home unactivated and with little hope of getting up and running that afternoon.

Even when my iPhone did wake up to the network at around 4:30, it took another couple of hours for iTunes to hit the servers properly and get my data restored to the new phone. Even then, my phone went wacky. The touch screen responded irregularly and buttons stopped functioning. Soon I got a white screen of death that sent me back to the AT&T store for the third time in a day. My earlier attempt at hard rebooting had failed, but my salesman succeeded. By 7:30, the great Apple debacle seemed to be over, at least for me.

But will it be forgotten? From my limited perspective here in Delaware, last year's PR polarity flipped on Friday, with Apple looking aloof and clueless and AT&T seeming affable and consumer-oriented. Having in-store activation should have made the server load predictable. Even on our lines we figured out how many people were being served at a time and when exactly we would make it into the store. Apple knew when various parts of the world were coming online over the course of the launch, the number of outlets involved, etc. This was a problem that anyone with the back of an envelope could have anticipated.

What really astonished me was the company's silence throughout a day when bloggers and customers raked their beloved brand over the coals online. There wasn't even a press statement I could find explaining the problem, let alone apologizing to their brand loyalists for marring the launch day experience they has hyped for so long. Yesterday, the company was quick to announce over 1 million units sold and 10 million downloads already from the App Store. They didn't explain why many of their customers were without phone service for a solid business day.

Worse, Apple gave my family yet another good opportunity to mock "Digital Dad."

"After all that, it doesn't work?" my daughter chortled in that refined teen-girl blend of disbelief and glee. "Do you think that the Wall Street Journal guy had this trouble?" she asked while playing Monkey Ball.

I don't know if Steve Jobs has a teen daughter, but I think the best revenge for last week's brand fart would be to loan him mine for a week.

Tags: mobile
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