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The Northern Spy
July 2009

iPhone iIntro iFiasco

Rick Sutcliffe

Of the making of lists, there is no end,

or so it seems to the Spy, who frequently encounters "best" and "worst" lists. One of his own is a personal record of the worst technology decisions ever made. Of necessity this would be a very long scroll indeed, but a sampling ensues:

- Goliath's decision to ignore that David was armed with superior (projectile) weapons technology,

- Western Union's scorning Mr. Bell's invention as an "electrical toy",

- Henry Ford's stubborn insistence on sticking with the Model-T when other car companies were breezing past it in performance,

- The 1958 decision of John Diefenbaker's Conservative government to cave in to American pressure and anti-Liberal budget cutters to scrap the Avro CF-105 Arrow, the most advanced fighter plane developed to that time,

- DEC's inability to either market its superior mid range computers (VAX and PDP-11) and OS (openVMS) or join the revolution when microcomputers bid to replace them,

- IBM's decision to market the PC Jr.

Any number of more recent debacles could be added to the list, often involving the spending of billions on IT projects the participants knew almost from conception were pathological. Sometimes the bad decision (like political parties) reflects mere ordinary incompetence, others breathtaking so. It may be venal, egotistic, or fraudulent, result from a misunderstanding of money, markets, sales, stockholders, or customers. It may reflect poor judgement, be innocently ill-advised, or even lauded as brilliant at the time, and appear equally wretched (and costly) in hindsight.

Events of the last few days highlight another such decision, one that has always been on the Spy's list, but that clearly deserves an encore in the hall of shame. The actual decision, he reserves till later, but first a disclaimer: This is not an April column. Events described in the following section are true.

The Spy had hoped

this month's ramblings might contain an initial overview of Apple's new iPhone 3GS. After all, his once state-of-the art Palm Treo was not only looking battered, its technology was exceedingly long in the tooth, and its manufacturer these days not merely modified by the adjective "beleaguered" (once hurled Apple's way) but has acquired the distinct aroma of a funeral parlour.

Indeed, the latest iteration if iSteve's pocket Mac was enticing. Double the memory, half again as much raw processor speed, a compass, a passably good cheap camera, a better (albeit still weak) battery, a modicum of voice control, and improved video to 480p--taken together a sign that Apple not only had the coolest product with the greatest buzz, it was serious about catching up with the competition in features. It had steak to sell, not mere sizzle.

So, plastic in hand, he set out to purchase one on introduction day. Since his igloo lies many kilometres from the nearest Apple store (now actually selling the iToy themselves) his only choice was Rogers, whose network has an exclusive sweetheart deal to carry the iPhone in this Great Frozen North. Alas, the first Rogers store he entered wasn't one of the blessed. It wouldn't be carrying that product. The second had only received four, and they were all gone five minutes after opening. More that afternoon. The third, ditto.

By noon (for he was doing other things along the way) the fourth had plenty of stock. Unfortunately the Rogers network was down, their activation system overwhelmed, unable to cope. In the light of identical problems in the land to the south, the Spy wonders if Rogers pinched the AT&T software. Well, revisits to the same and other stores later in the day finally elicited the word that Rogers was unable to fix the problems that night. Try again tomorrow.

Since he'd been on an out-of-town driveabout with his wife, that meant trying yet another store closer to home. To save time, a phone call first.

"Rogers. This is ____ speaking." (Names removed to protect those who may be innocent.)

"Is it possible to buy and activate an iPhone this morning?"

"No problem, Sir."

"How's your stock on a 32-black?"

"I'll set one aside for you."

"Thanks. I'll be there at 1:30."

A couple of hours later

and speaking to the same person, I am informed that there is a problem with my Rogers account.

"You upgraded less than two years ago."

(showing him the old Palm) "No, what happened was that I had this phone originally on a corporate account, but found I was using it too much for personal things, so I had it switched over to my own name when the contract ran out, and am paying it myself on a month-to-month basis without a contract."

"But they have to have two years' revenue from you before you can upgrade. You reset the clock on that when you switched your account."

"I'm not on a contract."

"I can still sell to you, but for an extra $100 because you are not eligible for the lower price." (He then repeats the part about the revenue stream required.)

The Spy then points out that he never agreed to any such terms, nor indeed any terms at all when he took over an already obsolete phone that was even then no longer under contract.

"You could call Rogers service. You would only have to wait a half hour or so on their line." (By this time, it seems I have being trying to pull a fast one. Note that he does not offer to straighten things out himself.)

"So, Rogers wants more money even though I am not on a contract."

He then repeats the part about the revenue stream required before an upgrade.

"Very well, I won't buy, and I may have something to say about Rogers in my column."

"I can't do anything about it, Sir. We're not Rogers."

This latter seems an odd statement considering that there are Rogers logos everywhere, a gigantic sign to that effect over the store faŤade, and no indications whatever that any other provider or company is connected with this outlet. The Spy also notes that he could have cancelled his account (no contract, remember) and gone in as a new customer and received the lower price.

Lessons learned from the iFiasco

- Not all (hardly any?) Rogers wireless stores are owned by Rogers. Rather, they are local cell companies, sometimes consisting of a single store, other times of a small chain, who have the right to use Rogers' trademarks and logos, but have no access to existing customer accounts, and no ability to make a decision, however logical it may be,

- Rogers "Plus" stores are usually video rental places dabbling in a few of the cheaper cell phone sets and seldom (not never) carry the iPhone. A better name, in view of this, would be "Rogers Minus" despite that they are (mostly? all?) apparently corporately owned.

- Rogers, like AT&T was completely unprepared for the event, despite having been through two other Apple introductions,

- Not only should IT heads roll at both companies, Apple has to be seriously reconsidering these two monopoly contracts. There are other capable networks in the US of A, and it won't be long before others could connect to an iPhone in Canada,

The Sequel

appeared scarcely more promising. Logging on to his Rogers online account, the Spy was first told that no phone accounts were connected with that ID, despite it being willing to list the correct one (which it would not access). So, he deleted that one, then re-attached the same account number, whereupon he was informed it would be accessible in 24 hours. Further, an email to Rogers' service citing his account number (on the promise of an answer within 24 hours) and suggesting his best option might be to cancel altogether, elicited a reply about a day and a half later to the effect that the cell phone number (and a "pass number" never before mentioned by them or him) were also needed for them to access his account. Hello? You can't access a customer account without the customer's password? You cannot connect an account number with a cell number on your own system? Wow.

Well, he replied, on the promise of that 24 hours again, and got back the answer that he is indeed eligible for the $299 pricing on the 32G model with the three year plan. He replied back, wondering whether any store would know that, as he's a little gun shy. So, perhaps it will all pan out in the end, though he won't hold his breath or make another run to the store just yet. The Spy notes that so many people have had similar problems (mostly with activation) south of the border that Apple has mailed $30 store credits to customers who bought directly from an Apple Store. He has wasted time worth far more on this project already, but will keep his breathless reader informed if and as the next acts plays out. But even if the situation resolves in the next couple of days, the news can wait another month. He's no longer in any hurry.

Which brings us back to the decision worthy of the list

which was made by CP (Canadian Pacific) in the 1984-1988 timeframe to exit the telecommunications business it formerly shared with CN, selling the assets and ceding the field to Rogers/AT&T Unitel, thus ultimately missing out on the entire Internet and Cellphone revolution. Ah yes, this was at the time part of a broader strategy to shrink the company from a multi-industry conglomerate back to a mere railway, distributing the proceeds of those asset sales to shareholders. This was a classic case of modest short term greedy gain in exchange for enormous long term opportunity loss, not to mention wresting the torch from competent technical hands and handing it to those of questionable carrying capacity. The Spy cannot help but wonder whether the people who made that decision will ever be capable of looking at themselves in the mirror with equanimity.

A Correction

Last month the Spy noted his initial puzzlement that Logos Software's new Macintosh Bible reader product installs a third party program called Libronix DLS.app, a library manager for the many books available under the Logos banner. A response from the company indicates that Libronix IS their own product. Who knew? Who could know to find it under that name on the disk drive without searching for the thingy most recently installed?

More on this in subsequent months, as this software is (or may be) part of a much larger review project--one that was to involve iPhone software as well. We'll see about that, so TTFN.

--The Northern Spy

Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor and chair of Computing Science and Mathematics as well as Senate Chair at Trinity Western University. He is also on the board of CIRA, operator of .ca. He's written two textbooks and several novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns? Surf on over to ArjayBB.com. Participate and you could win free web hosting from the WebNameHost.net subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree form from Amazon's Booksurge.


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Last Updated: 2009 06 24