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The longest week in iPhone history?

  • Dan Turner (Unknown Publication)
  • 20 July, 2008 22:00

With the iPhone 3G launch now more than a week behind us, it's time to look back and see how the second coming of the iPhone turned out.

Short answer: For a lot of people, not so good.

If you absolutely had to have the new iPhone 3G as soon as the Apple and AT&T stores opened on July 11, you were most likely standing in slow-moving lines, waiting for hours -- sometimes while being mocked by an inept TV reporter trying to get "the story."

The glacial drift of these lines, while they were encouragingly in the general direction of the store entrance, was due in part to the new policy of not allowing customers to buy the hardware and take it home to activate the unit with AT&T's central command via iTunes and your home computer. That's how it was done last year, when the first iPhone hit the market. Even if all had gone as planned, this policy would have slowed the take-my-credit-card-and-let-me-go process. But all did not go as planned.

First off: hardware. As of earlier this week, iPhone 3Gs are sold out in (in alphabetical order) Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin. Now, try singing that to Johnny Cash's I've Been Everywhere . As of early yesterday, 27 percent of Apple's stores had at least one iPhone 3G model in stock, and analysts now say it could be two to four weeks before its stock is replenished. (You can check for yourself using Apple's stock-checking tool online.)

What's going on? It's true that people do react as capitalists dream they would when faced with an economic of scarcity: the harder it is to get something, the more fervidly people will want it. But the price of an iPhone 3G is fixed. It's not as though Apple will sell more, or get a higher price, by throttling supply. It seems that the supply chain mucked up somewhere along the way from manufacturing to customers' hands.

This isn't like the new-and-improved Apple that's been on a roll in recent years. Mac fans are used to shipping delays, or even poor allocations or distributions. Many longtime Mac users can remember Apple's bad old days of flooding cheap stores with an incomprehensible slew of Performa SKUs -- but that was in another time, and besides, that version of the company is dead. While the delays in Power Macs, Mac Pros and the like were a pain for those waiting for their shiny new computers, they were hardly on the scale of this past week's mess.

The desktop and laptop shipping problems were, at times, due to choked supplies of parts such as CPUs. In the Power PC days, Apple even had to step back its top-of-the-line Mac's CPU because Motorola couldn't push out chips with the promised megahertz. Could the iPhone 3G shortage be due to a similar problem? It's hard to say. Although manufacturers of cell phone components are used to churning out parts by the hundreds of thousands, the iPhone has a few unique tweaks, such as the touch screen and the CPU. Then again, maybe Apple could buy up only so much NAND flash memory.

Even those who just wanted to update their crusty old iPhones (original flavor) to the new iPhone 2.0 software faced hurdles. That group included me, and I nearly missed a meeting due to this issue. It took forever to get iTunes 7.7 to recognise that the 1.1.4 software on my iPhone was not, dammit, the same as the nifty 2.0 the cool kids were going on about.

And when I jigged and poked it enough to get it to cough up the 2.0 update -- a ginormous 225MB or so -- and stepped through the nail-biting update process (will I lose all my contacts?), I could not connect to the needed authorization servers. I wasn't the only one with this problem.

So, gah! I had a temporarily bricked iPhone. That is, it was updated but was back to the embryonic, emergency-only state it came in originally. All I could do was keep clicking in iTunes, hoping that this time I'd get through. Eventually I did, but this was not the "it just works" experience that Apple is usually so good at offering.

Others had better luck. These are the people who smile and don't get speeding tickets or flat tires and get the best tables at restaurants. They had a long weekend last Saturday and Sunday with their new or updated iPhones playing around with the hundreds of new, cool iPhone apps now available: Enigmo, Pandora radio, even the quickly annoying (to bystanders) PhoneSaber.

For those of us for whom the update or buying process didn't go so smoothly, this was not Apple's finest hour, and it doesn't do much to showcase either the products or the company to those new to the brand. The now-iconic iPod empirically drew in new customers, and the iPhone may be the first Apple product some people have ever owned (this goes even for my mother, who doesn't want to touch a computer).

More cautious buyers, more skeptical about Apple, probably sat out last summers iPhone 1.0 craziness. Now that they're ready to jump, Apple has offered up this fubar to those who need the most convincing, the best possible buyer and user experience.

Long-term Mac users can take this kind of screw-up. They're sold already on the product and have faith that all will be well, even if it takes some time. Just look at the rollout of Mac OS X 10.0 in 2001 and the ensuing improvements with each new version of the operating system. Compare that with the view that no matter how many service packs Microsoft pushes out, Vista will never be the bee's knees.

But, frustrated by long lines on launch day, stymied activations and short supplies, how many wannabe Mac fans will walk away and never come back? Even those who thought they were being smart by waiting a few days now find they may have to wait a month to get the iPhone of their choice.

This isn't to say the iPhone isn't and won't be a big hit, financially and technologically. I've said this could be the future of personal computing, eventually. But this wasn't exactly a forward step for the cause.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to catch up with the rest of the iPhone faithful. There are some free iPhone apps I still haven't tried.

Dan Turner has been writing about science and technology for over a decade at publications, including Salon, eWeek, MacWeek and The New York Times.