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Apple's iTurd

3G iPhone debut fizzles while firmware update freezes

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Around 10 a.m. Friday, I got an anxious call from my editor saying her iPhone wouldn't update and was now stuck in iTunes trying to contact the iTunes store. Her phone was seized with an ominous message to "slide for emergency." System updates, restarts, and resets accomplished nothing. At the same time, her failing laptop power connector quit charging and began the countdown to shutdown.

A look came across her face, and I knew she had gotten The Fear — in 26 minutes she would be off the grid.

Apple released its new 3G iPhone that day. It was tied to a firmware release that updated all iPhones that allowed users to install fancy programs on their phones. Although the update was quietly posted the day before, a huge chunk of iPhone owners updated their phone at the same time that all the new 3G owners tried to activate their new toys.

The result was a cataclysmic meltdown of the iTunes Store servers that prevented new owners from activating their phones and trapped current owners halfway through the update process. Apple now requires new phones to be activated in the store, so thousands spent full days in Apple stores waiting in line and staring at cryptic "iTunes error -9838" messages on store computers. Many current owners were left with non-working phones for the rest of the day.

Apple's online forums were ablaze with all-caps posts about people selling their phones, rants against Steve Jobs, and all the iWhining you could stomach. Well, suck it up, Mac fans. This isn't the first time Apple has blown it. And it won't be the last.

I think this is a good time for a trip in the wayback machine to take a look at how The Black Turtleneck has let us down before.

In May 1980, Apple released the Apple III, its successor to the widely popular Apple II that dominated the education market in the 1980s. With a sticker price between $4,000 and $8,000, it was a colossal flop and was discontinued a few years later. It had no cooling fans or vents and heavy use actually melted the solder holding the chips on the motherboard. In response, Apple issued a now infamous tech bulletin instructing owners to "lift the machine 3 inches (76 mm) and drop it in order to reset the chips."

Our beloved Macintosh was introduced a few years later, as was the inevitable OS/processor forced march that has burned many people who have to pay over and over to have a working computer.

For instance, consider this question: What are the years in which OS updates required you buy a whole new version? Answer: 1986, 1991, 1995, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006, and 2008. These are also the years in which you might have gotten an error message saying, "Your computer now sucks and does not meet the minimum system requirements for this installation," forcing you to buy another computer.

Nearly every major system update was accompanied by hundreds of reports of problems at sites like www.macintouch.com. Some were benign, like duplicate menu items, but many crashed computers and scrambled hard drives. System 8.5 was notorious for this and recently OS X 10.4.9 created havoc with a prebinding issue.

This forced all the Mac-loving right-brainers to learn a whole new arcane lexicon: extensions manager, conflict catcher, virtual memory allocation, resource forks, rebuilding your desktop, defrag your drive, zapping the PRAM, zapping the PMU, Kernel Panics, Open Firmware, fsck -y, file permissions, boot sectors, IDE Master/Slave, PCI slot management, and the beloved SCSI ID conflict. Resolving these didn't help as much as they should have, and many times users were left with "wipe the drive and do a clean install."

There's no doubt that Windows users have suffered many more problems with various update and driver issues (and viruses and spyware), but don't let Mr. Jobs lull you into thinking his turds don't stink. The old ones may have dried up a bit, but he dropped a fresh big steamer this time.

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