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Slices Of Apple, Part 2 July 28, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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This is the second in a series of posts dissecting Apple’s recent misfortunes during the rollout of the iPhone 3G and related technologies.  You’ll find the first post here.

Turn One Knob At A Time

Divide and conquer.  Divide and conquer.  Divide and conquer.  This mantra, more than any other, must be burned into the brain of anyone hoping to make a career of IT.  Break big jobs into small jobs, deliver on the small jobs, and the big jobs will solve themselves.  Very few projects cannot be divided into sequences of interdependent smaller projects that, in turn, are easier to understand and complete.

Although Apple committed many errors in the iPhone deployment, they can all be traced to breaking this fundamental rule.  In one day, Apple launched the new iPhone 3G, a new matching version of iTunes with the new Apps store, a corresponding firmware update for the iPod Touch, and a replacement for the .Mac service called MobileMe.  Any one of these launches is a big event, bringing significant value to new and existing customers.  Each is fraught with peril if things don’t go well.  Tackling one or two would be a big deal; tackling all four was a mistake.  Apple’s hubris, I suspect, made them think they could pull this off.  They were wrong.

From the comfort of my Monday Morning Quarterback Chair, here’s how I would have scheduled this rollout:

  • Launch with the iPhone 3G, along with the new version of iTunes, but without the App store going live.  Instead, put a teaser link in iTunes to get people salivating over all the wonderful new apps that are just a few days away.  People will be so excited over the new iPhone that they won’t care that the apps aren’t yet available.  Apple servers cannot keep up with all that phone provisioning anyway; why burden them with additional traffic as people look for new apps for their phone?
  • Allow the phone rollout to stabilize over a period of two weeks.  Apologize for the provisioning problems with some comment that emphasizes how hard it is to predict demand with such an insanely popular phone.  Let the press write glowing reviews on the virtues of 3G speed and the business connectivity in the phone.
  • After two weeks, announce the fabulous new App Store.  People that have just gotten a bit bored with their fast 3G access on their phone will now go crazy all over again, downloading and trying out apps.  This is the lowest-risk step of the bunch, since most of the app problems are related back to the authors, not Apple.
  • If the iPhone is stable at this point, release the firmware upgrade for the iPod Touch.  If not, wait for the bugs to get fixed and slip the release for a future date.  If things are going smoothly, you’ll be quieting the revolt among Touch owners who desperately want those new apps and features.  If the firmware is buggy, you’ve saved yourself calls from another class of irate users.
  • Finally, hold off on MobileMe for however long it takes to fix it.  This product, among all these releases, is clearly not ready for primetime and is a real black eye for Apple.

In the end, you must understand and slightly exceed your users’ expectations.  No one in the user community was demanding a new phone, and new firmware, and new apps, and new iTunes, and MobileMe all on the same day.  Why try?  Any experienced IT professional could tell you this plan was bound to fail. In every rollout, something goes wrong.  And when one thing falls over, it’s bound to tip over lots of other dominoes behind it, resulting in an avalanche of problems.  If you set up fewer dominoes to begin with, you increase your odds of success.  If you have to turn a bunch of knobs on something, turn just one knob at a time!

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