iPhone 3G fiasco could have been avoided

What were you thinking?" a legendary editor at The Sun, Tony Barbieri, would ask his underperforming underlings. Before they could respond (they knew better), he would answer the question for them: "You weren't thinking."

After Apple made a perfect mess of the twin MobileMe/iPhone 3G launch Friday, I couldn't help but picture Tony in his office dressing down a contrite Steve Jobs.


As always, Apple had set the table for extensive media coverage of the iPhone 3G launch. But the plan backfired when Apple's servers, strained to the breaking point by excessive traffic, all but stopped functioning. Instead of the usual accolades and interviews with enthralled customers, the stories focused on the anger and frustration of disgruntled customers.

People buying the new iPhone in Apple Stores and AT&T; stores could not get their new toys activated in the store, which is required by Apple's new purchasing rules. Many were sent home and told to activate them via iTunes from their home computers.


In most cases, that didn't work, either.

Meanwhile, Mac users trying to access the new MobileMe services experienced similar vexations. The service was up and down - mostly down - for the better part of the day.

But it was the iPhone debacle that drew the bulk of the bad publicity. A sampling of headlines: "For Apple, a taste of humble pie" (The Boston Globe); "Apple bungles its iPhone 3G launch" (Time); "iFiasco: Apple's iPhone launch flawed, faithful told to go home" (Chicago Sun-Times); "iPhone Users Plagued by Software Problems" (The New York Times). There are many more. Many, many more.

Despite being an Apple advocate, I have to give the company a collective slap upside the head for this one.

The date was set months ago; Apple knew from its experience with the launch of the original iPhone last year that its stores (and AT&T;'s) would be packed with early adopters. The change in policy to have customers activate their phones in the store instead of when they got home meant a lot of high, steady traffic on its servers.

And Apple knew that owners of the original iPhone, trying to upgrade to the iPhone 2.0 software to enjoy many of the goodies available on the iPhone 3G, would also be hitting those same servers.

And Apple scheduled the switch-over of its .Mac service to the beefier MobileMe the night before, creating more chaos. I realize Apple did this because the MobileMe service syncs with iPhones as well as Macs, but doing it so close to the iPhone 3G launch meant Apple had to take a giant gamble, a gamble that it lost big-time.

The more prudent but less dramatic strategy would have been to set up the MobileMe service several days before the iPhone launch. That would have taken some of the pressure off Apple's servers from thousands of .Mac users like me who were eager to test MobileMe's new features as soon as they were available.


And while it would have slightly spoiled the drama of the iPhone 3G's introduction, Apple could have allowed the current iPhone owners to download the whopping 225 megabyte iPhone 2.0 software update a few days earlier.

Less orchestrated, less dramatic, yes, but minus the meltdown.

This would be a humiliation for any large company, but it's worse for Apple, which has built its public image on a foundation of superior design and customer service. Longtime Apple critics are feasting on this blunder as proof that Apple isn't the premium company it claims to be.

Apple's best hope for minimizing the damage from this fiasco is that customers are so wowed by the iPhone 3G (and the iPhone 2.0 software, and the new MobileMe features) that they'll grudgingly forgive it, as they have previous transgressions.

But it never should have happened.