Wet and Wild: The iPhone is Genius [Part 3]
The date was out of the bag: July 11th was D-day, or i-Day, or … whatever.
My strategy was cunning and complete. Instead of going to the Apple Store at Park Meadows Mall in the southern suburbs of Denver, I would go to a lesser-known ATT store and sneak in early for my phone.
I rose at my typical time of 5:15 AM, and leisurely prepared a few cups of my home-roasted coffee. I scanned the Denver Post and Wall Street Journal as I do each morning, and noticed some articles about lines in New Zealand where the iPhone had gone on sale many hours before. Hmmmm…
I grabbed my coffee and headed out to the ATT store at 6:15 AM. I figured I’d be in line at 6:30 AM, and took the WSJ with me for entertainment. I was guessing I’d be maybe between seventh and tenth in line. I’d have my iPhone a few minutes after the store opened at 8 AM, and be back in time to take my youngest son to swim practice at 8:45 AM.
What kind of drugs was I taking?
First, I should have read the danger signs. None of the ATT stores claimed to know, even the night before, how many phones they would get. This was critical. The ATT guy had told me that Apple gave them only 20 phones when the first model came out, but “you’d think Apple would be smarter this time since they know there will be a demand.”
Not comforting. So I called the Apple store and asked them how many phones they were getting, and when they would have them.
I quote: “We don’t know how many we’re getting, and we don’t know when they’ll arrive. It might be 10:00 AM, it might be 10:30 PM.”
This was probably the most disingenuous strategy foisted by a company I have always admired for their customer service and their progressive design capabilities. I was sure this was bull excrement, and the Apple guy knew it.
When ATT stated that they’d open two hours earlier than usual, at 8 AM, Apple quickly countered by stating the Apple stores would open at 8 AM, too. Of course, the mall itself is open hours earlier as people like to stroll around for exercise and escape from the heat; so I expected the doors to be open early to the mall.
But in my flawed thinking, I assumed that everyone and their dog would come to the Apple store, and that the ATT stores would be neglected, hence my home-by-8:45 AM delusion. But when I pulled up to the ATT store, I saw a bakery open. ‘Must be a popular coffee and donut stop’ I thought. Nope, there were geeks everywhere — 30 in line an hour and a half before the ATT store opened. Oh, oh.
I settled into line, and quickly learned some people had lined up at my out-of-the-way ATT store at 4:30 PM…that’s right, previous afternoon.
Once the door opened at 8 AM, the first two to three people were let in. Fifteen minutes later, the overnight campers emerged holding their little iPhone boxes up like Neanderthals who’d just beheaded a mastodon. It was taking an eternity for each group of people to go in, get their phones and emerge. I started chatting with a guy from Phoenix who was in town for whatever reason, and was a geek from long ago. He, in fact, was holding his original iPhone, yet he muscled into line to buy the new iPhone…just because it was there. We started pondering how many phones might they have at this store. Remember, they never did say prior to the opening. So, an ATT guy was out in front of the store telling people that, unless they were the person who would sign a contract, to get out of line because they couldn’t get a phone.
I turned to my new-found Arizona friend.
“Maybe I should hold your place in line while you go up and ask how many phones they have?”
He agreed. Both of us wanted the 16 GB phone in black.
He went up to the ATT person and came back.
“Apple only gave them 40 phones.”
“Well, if they’re allowing only one per person, we’ll get one. How many 16 gig phones are left?”
“That’s the bad news. Three.”
I noticed the ears perking up of people around me. We were 30 and 31 in line. So, yes, we would get a phone, but there were still 20 or so people ahead of us. There would be almost no chance of a 16 gig black phone when my turn came up.
Just then, a girl in front of me, who’d been on the periphery of our conversation, whipped out her cell phone and called the Apple store at Park Meadows.
“They say they have 1000 phones there, and the wait is only an hour.”
She seemed conflicted as to what to do. I was not. After two hours in the ATT line, I fled for the Apple store, assuming I’d get there by 8:45 AM, get my phone, and be out by 9:45 AM. Well, my wife could take my son to swim practice.
What kind of drugs was I taking?
Once in the mall, I saw a line about 150 people long. ‘Gee, how are they gonna get through that many people in an hour?’ I knew there was no way. Behind me was a network support specialist who had emigrated from yet another ATT store that had sold out its 40 phone allocation in 30 minutes. He boasted that he’d camped out overnight when the PlayStation 3 came out, and sold a few on eBay for a grand a pop. I eyed him warily, expecting the Vulcan salute at any moment, but he seemed more or less normal. The line was moving in small increments every 20 minutes or so. Not good.
Soon, we established a small cadre of people, maybe the 10 behind and in front of us. As the line inched along, we covered for each other for bathroom and food breaks.
What we didn’t realize was that the activation process was taking far, far longer than expected. This was a stupefying error on Apple’s part, though they passed it off on ATT. When the first iPhone came out, people could come in, pick up the phone, and retreat home to activate it over iTunes. This was unprecedented for a carrier. The bread and butter of cellular profitability is roping people into service contracts. With fickle people willing to dump carriers like bad barbers, phone companies were taking every opportunity to lock people into contracts. Want to upgrade your phone? Sign a contract. Want to change services? Sign a contract. Walk into the store by accident, sign a contract.
In fact, rumor has it that ATT wasn’t even the first carrier approached by Apple to provide services for the iPhone, but the previous contender(s) simply stopped Apple dead in the water when the talk of activation over iTunes came up. No way.
Now, another problem that screwed ATT mightily was the reluctance, particularly in the European markets, to be tied to a carrier … any carrier. Europe, and parts of Asia for that matter, are light years beyond the U.S. in cellular technology. There is a proud heritage of buying “unlocked” phones in Europe, meaning phones that you buy and then buy a SIM card from the carrier of choice, load it, and be on your way. So, naturally, hackers everywhere cracked the locking code (which ties a SIM to a carrier) and started using iPhones on whatever network they wished. ATT heard the sound of millions of dollars flushing into the ether, and there was heated strategizing prior to the iPhone 3G release.
To stem piracy, ATT and Apple conspired to eliminate the iTunes activation. You now had to show up in person with a credit card (no cash), your social security number, and be prepared to sign a two-year contract. This gutted out the buy-and-switch SIM strategy of the hackers.
But Apple and ATT did an abysmal job at capacity planning, so the first activation at Park Meadows was rumored to have taken 45 minutes. After that, the top speed through the Apple store was only 25 customers per hour. It was taking about 15 minutes per person to activate each phone, with many periods of server crashes intertwined. After four hours in line, the network geek went for lunch. He’d worked a graveyard shift and hadn’t eaten since the previous evening. He was starting to go from humorous to dark and dangerous. When the Apple store workers came by to pass out water and such to people in line, he became more and more surly.
“You know, why couldn’t you just sell the phones and let people go to the ATT stores, whom you screwed by giving them only 40 phones, and just activate them there? What’s wrong with that? Huh?”
He actually was right, but the Apple workers were under strict orders to say nothing and to smile profusely. So, after returning from lunch, and after four hours in a line that had moved maybe 50 yards, he bailed.
“I just don’t see this any more. I’ll come back next week.”
And with that, he was gone.
Various food court vendors came by with free samples, and the crowd was for the most part, patient. Good damned thing because, from the time I stepped in that line, until walking out with my 16 gig, black iPhone…was seven hours … adding on the two hours at ATT, make that nine hours.
So, that was my point of inflection from relative normalcy to the Kingdom of Geeks. But my residence among the early adopters is over. Thus, my earlier statement that I wouldn’t wait in a line like that if I was in front of Fort Knox and they were handing out gold bars.
So, by now you’re curious. How is the iPhone? Was it worth the wait?