Wednesday, July 18, 2007

iPhone Review Part 2: What I'll Miss About Going to the Verizon Store

Markets are very efficient, most of the time.

Thanks to the human survival instinct, word spreads very quickly when something’s happening that might affect our well-being—because we constantly watch what other people are doing to see if anybody else has a competitive advantage we’re missing out on.

That’s why investors watch the tape for strange movements in stocks and constantly wonder what everybody else in the world knows that they don’t know. And why shoppers standing in line at the supermarket—particularly male shoppers— keep an eye on the other lines, like one of those automatic electronic outdoor surveillance systems, only more efficient.

We want to see if somebody else somewhere in the universe might in fact be moving through whatever line we happen to be in slightly faster.

It drives my wife insane.

And if we male shoppers do see a faster moving line, we perform a quick mental calculation of the inherent cost to our well-being and decide whether it makes sense to give up the line we’re in and go for the open lane, or stay put.

It drives my children insane, too. But, hey, it’s important to save twenty or thirty seconds in line.

Of course, that was before the cell phone came along and made all kinds of formerly unbearable activities like commuting and standing in line at checkout counters suddenly productive uses of time. Stuck in line? Whip out the cell phone and check in at the office.

Lines got even more bearable when the Blackberry came along: suddenly we could accomplish work.

And now we have the iPhone, a device that could actually make waiting fun, not just productive...and leads me to the terrific example of efficient markets which occurred the day of the iPhone launch.

The lines at the Apple stores late Friday afternoon were exceedingly long, not only because of the media hype, but because those were the stores that were getting stocked with the precious iPhones. But since I didn't want to sleep on the sidewalk to get one, I tried a few Cingular stores.

And the lines at the Cingular stores—at least the ones I checked—were non-existent.

I knew immediately I wasn’t going to get an iPhone at Cingular, but decided to stop at one and ask when, if ever, they might come in. “We’ll know if we’re getting them by 5:30,” said the guy who was standing around smoking in front of the store.

It was 5 p.m.

There was no way on earth an iPhone would be arriving at his store in the next thirty minutes without somebody, somewhere, knowing about it, which, in turn, would mean everybody would know about it, causing a line to form in front of the store in place of a guy smoking a cigarette. I left for the next store, but it was the same story: no lines and no iPhones.

All in all, the market for iPhones launch was very efficient.

But it was not 100% efficient.

An alert friend surfing the internet that Friday night had discovered a few iPhones still available at one of the less popular Apple stores, went down there and bought one first thing Saturday morning, then shipped it my way.

Now, it’s not the 8 gig version; it’s the 4 gig iPhone. So I haven’t even bothered downloading songs yet and haven’t got a useful thing to say about the iPod-type features of the iPhone.

My interests—and what will make or break the iPhone—are its utility as a phone, and its ability as an internet access device.

As I said previously, we here at NotMakingThisUp have been putting the iPhone through the most demanding consumer testing methodology any leading-edge consumer products company could ever devise.

We’ve been letting teenagers use it.

And yet the single coolest thing about the whole experience did not come out of the many strenuous activities of our youthful panel of experts.

Sure, the finger-flicking touch-screen you’ve seen on the television ads is extremely cool, and useful; and the lack of anything but a single button on the front of the iPhone to navigate around the device actually works quite nicely and far better than the endless sets of buttons on my regular old cell phone.

Not even the size and clarity of the screen, which is—and I’m going to use a phrase you might easily dismiss as hyperbole, but it is not—like nothing you’ve ever seen, was as slick as the thing that caused most of the negative headlines the morning after the launch: the activation process.

Everybody knows—hey, the mainstream media told us so!—the activation process stunk

Eager sleep-deprived buyers who’d waited two or three days in line to be the first on their block to buy an iPhone found they couldn’t use it because they couldn’t get a phone number, or they couldn’t transfer their phone number, or the computers at AT&T were swamped.

Maybe that did happen to a few people. (I talked to a friend in the business who said the problems happened to people trying to transfer business numbers or where Cingular couldn’t do a credit check—which they do before giving you a phone number.)

But the fact of the matter is this: the iPhone’s activation process is, in and of itself, revolutionary—to use an extremely over-used phrase, especially when it comes to Apple products.

In fact, I’d say it’s as revolutionary as the day personal computers stopped being sold strictly at “Authorized Dealers” by FORTRAN-talking young men in short-sleeved white shorts and started being sold at consumer-friendly stores like Best Buy.

The entire activation process worked, for me, like this:

Step 1: I take the iPhone out of the box. No batteries to insert, no user manuals in English, Spanish, French, German, Mandarin, Anglo-Saxon, and Gender-Neutral Flemish. Just a slim, metal and glass iPhone, a thin getting-started pamphlet called “Finger Tips,” and a connector to link it to a computer.

Step 2: I turn on my Mac and discover I need to upgrade my iTunes to the latest version, which I do. This takes maybe five minutes which turns out to be the longest part of the entire process.

Step 3: I plug the iPhone into the Mac using the connector cable provided in the box.

Step 4: Since all my information is already in iTunes—name, address, and credit card—everything I’d normally have to fill out online has already been filled out. The only thing I have to do is click a couple of “I Agree” buttons and pick which plan I want from AT&T.

Step 5: My iPhone is activated. My new phone number appears.

And that, literally, was it. Aside from downloading the latest version of iTunes, it took maybe three minutes.

Now, I might miss the days when I had to go to a Verizon store in order to get a new cell phone, instead of being able to buy the phone online and activate it at home.

I might especially miss signing in at the store—Verizon makes you sign in when you enter their stores using a touch-screen sign-in device even when there is nobody in line and the clerks are waiting for poor shlubs like me to finish the stupid process of signing in.

I might miss touching that glass screen infested with microbes from the sweaty fingerprints of thousands of Verizon customers before me, punching in my name, address, phone number, user name, password, favorite dog, mother’s maiden name, least favorite opera, preferred brand of sneakers and most influential motion picture, simply to get in a line which did not exist when I entered the door but is now so long it appears Verizon is suddenly offering free tickets to a Beatles reunion, with John and George too.

I might even miss—once I get to the head of the line—the helpful sales clerk waving his hand in the general direction of bunch of cell phones tethered to the wall and saying, “That’s what we have.”

And I might miss waiting while he goes into the back room to see if whatever I’ve picked out is “available”—as if Verizon doesn’t have zillions of these things stacked floor-to-ceiling in the back room and he’s not actually sitting around with six other Verizon sales clerks playing “Solitaire” on the computer while they make us all wait.

I might also miss the part where, after the sales clerk comes back with the box and waves it triumphantly because he just won three games in a row, I have to select a new plan because according to the sales clerk the old plan was waaaaaaaay too expensive for what I’ve been doing with the phone even though that’s what the sales clerk told me the last time I was there too.

And I most especially might miss the part where the clerk opens up the box and takes out the phone and the battery and unwraps them and assembles them while telling me how long to recharge the battery and what my security code is and why I should get cell phone insurance.

But I doubt it.

So the first genius of the iPhone is this: no longer will people who buy cameras and televisions and even cars online be forced to shlep down to a cellular phone store and have an hour’s worth of their brief lives wasted by a clerk.

We’ll buy the phone at a store—brick and mortar or virtual—just like anything else made out of plastic, glass and chips. We’ll activate it online and be done with it.

Coming up, our panel of experts—teenagers—will tell us what they like, what they hate, and why they will or won’t go out and buy one.

And we’ll disclose what the iPhone’s version of “Solitaire” is.

Jeff Matthews
I Am Not Making This Up

© 2007 NotMakingThisUp, LLC

The content contained in this blog represents the opinions of Mr. Matthews. Mr. Matthews also acts as an advisor and clients advised by Mr. Matthews may hold either long or short positions in securities of various companies discussed in the blog based upon Mr. Matthews' recommendations. This commentary in no way constitutes a solicitation of business or investment advice. It is intended solely for the entertainment of the reader, and the author.


Ben said...


You don't need to go to the Verizon stores either. In fact, when I went to get my free 2 year phone upgrade last month they made it easier to do it online then in the store. They charge you $50 with a $50 rebate if you upgrade your phone in the store. When you order the phone online there is no stupid rebate to go through to get a free phone. I just ordered the phone and when it arrived I activated the new phone using my old phone and that was it.

Kevin said...

I'm lost. The "revolutionary" new feature is the activation process? But that is not the "solitaire equivalent", for which we need to tune in next time? What's the relevance? Also, how come you got a new number - would it have been as easy to transfer an existing number (something, I think, most people would like to do)?

As an aside, I recently upgraded my Verizon phone (instead of buying it from Verizon, I bought it off Craig's list for about a quarter of the price - and did not have to sign a new contract). The activation process involved a single call to Verizon and pressing some buttons on the phone - hardly a daunting process.

pondering said...

Jeff, thank you thank you, my hands no longer shake, the trembles are gone. Ok when's my next fix.

buckeye1 said...

I'm not sure what ghetto Verizon store in New York you are shopping at but I've never had to sign in at a Verizon store and I've probably been in 6 or 7 locations in my 6 years of using the company. And activation of new phones has never been a hassle whatsoever. Were you able to transfer your contacts easily from another phone? That is the most important part of buying a new phone to me. Unless there is an easy way to transfer all your contacts online, I'd just assume go into the Verizon store and let the clerk transfer my contacts over. And I won't be using AT&T anytime soon. What a horrible company.

Tim Knows How to Make Stuff Up said...

"So the first genius of the iPhone is this: no longer will people who buy cameras and televisions and even cars online be forced to shlep down to a cellular phone store and have an hour’s worth of their brief lives wasted by a clerk."

Not sure if I will be the first commenter to burst your bubble, but it recently took me about two minutes to activate my new Verizon BB world phone. And, three years ago, I activated my then new T-Mobile phone in a similar fashion online, i.e., without the need to go to a bricks 'n mortar establishment. In other words, no genius here.

Hopefully, the solitaire revelation will be just that, a revelation. Otherwise, keep up the great work!

justin said...

Jeff could you please just put the whole story up at one time? It is very frustrating every day to come and check for your full review

Johnny Debacle said...

"So the first genius of the iPhone is this: no longer will people who buy cameras and televisions and even cars online be forced to shlep down to a cellular phone store and have an hour’s worth of their brief lives wasted by a clerk.

We’ll buy the phone at a store—brick and mortar or virtual—just like anything else made out of plastic, glass and chips. We’ll activate it online and be done with it.

Coming up, our panel of experts—teenagers—will tell us what they like, what they hate, and why they will or won’t go out and buy one."

Uhm...hasn't this been available via for 5+ years?

Also multi-part stories that are drawn out over a full month are pure pain.

Dan said...

Jeff - I wanted to take a moment to tell you what I thought about your column, full details will be coming soon...

Dan said...

jeff - I wanted to take a few minutes to tell you what i think about your recent posting. I think tha... more details coming soon.

punchcard said...

As a fan of your blog, I'm afraid to say it, but this piece is lacking content again. You are revealing your age and luddite status by knocking Verizon this way - getting a new phone is dead simple these days, and I'm very slow at figuring this stuff out. I only go to the store to transfer my contact list (and there's probably an easier way to do that as well, but their stores are everywhere so who cares). I also have no idea what you are referring to about "signing in" because I've never experienced this.

Mark said...

>>...what will make or break the iPhone—are its utility as a phone, and its ability as an internet access device.<<

LOL... An "internet access device"??? On THAT network??? Well, I guess it's "break", not "make"!

>>Step 1: I take the iPhone out of the box. No batteries to insert...<<

Another LOL... None for you to REPLACE, either! (Of course, for a small fee and a wee bit of [phoneless] inconvenience, Steve would be glad to do it for you.)

Anonymous said...

I know, I know. The D&D die roller widget is the end all and be all of iPhone aps.

Eight-sided die goodness.

Garver said...

I sense some frustration among your faithful readers with your iPhone review series, so let me try to immediately jump to the root cause here and help everyone.

In the words of Simon Cowell, your writing has become “self indulgent.” Period.

You seem to have fallen in love with words and the process of writing and forgotten what you are writing about and who your audience is.

It’s that simple.

This change started during the Berkshire pilgrimage piece, which took waaay too long to get out given the few simple (though powerful) conclusions you drew from it.

I thought your “Up-Looking/Un-Restrained” piece was virtually unreadable.

Now, you are doing another mega-multi-month series on what’s essentially a product review. Mossberg and other guys finished their iPhone reviews and moved on weeks ago. Yet, in today’s edition of your version, we need to wade through pages of nonsense (waiting in line in supermarkets, efficient markets, Cingular stores) only to find out you like the activation process.

This is followed by another promise that you will finally reveal some insights … next time.

“Old” Jeff would have dispatched the iPhone review in one single piece on Monday following its release with ample and unique insights and by now would have moved on to more current, interesting, and important topics that the audience of this blog really cares about.

SiamTwin said...

some of your (loyal?) readers are taking issue with your alleged style drift. i find that funny - you are providing a free service and not even posting ads on your site. what right do they have to criticize you? do what you like and screw 'em.

BlackLab said...

I'm required to sign in at Verizon.

When I bought my Blackberry, I refused to sign a contract, despite the fact that it would save me a few hundred dollars.
I'd rather part with my money than be beholden to a cellular carrier for two years.

My choice was not a popular one with the individual behind the counter. In the most condescending tone of voice he could muster, he explained why I was making a poor choice.

I told him I understood. Then I told him I didn't care.

He then turned to his colleague, who had witnessed our exchange, and referred to me as a "meatball".

Minus the spaghetti, he said.

They had, it seems, a language all their own to describe customers and customer transactions.

Next time I'll try doing my business online. I doubt I'll miss the store experience.

For those of you who pan Jeff's style, the last line of his blog disclaimer states that he writes for your entertainment as well as his own. Be patient. After all, part of something is better than all of nothing.

Jennifer said...

Those of you who are criticizing Jeff, where in the WORLD did you get the idea that he owes you anything at all, or that he even cares what you think? It's his BLOG. You're acting like a disgruntled customer, which makes no sense in this context. MAYBE he'd be interested in hearing criticism, but good lord, he's not writing this to please you.