Friday, September 25, 2015

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably an owner and enthusiast of Apple products.  And being an enthusiast of Apple, you may have braved the Apple Store on a product launch day.  I have been at an Apple Store for eleven product launches, but only once as a customer.  This entry is a peak behind the black, velvet curtains.

My first product launch, as a customer, was for Mac OS X Leopard, 26 October 2007.  In those days, Apple Retail Stores closed at 2:00 PM; employees erected black, velvet curtains to cover store windows and had fewer than four hours to get the store ready for launch.  Outside the store, I joined a queue, designated by stanchions, and I remember standing behind a teenage boy, excited to get this new version of Mac OS X.  I was fascinated by his iPhone, as he checked his email.

At 6:00 PM, the curtains came down, and the doors opened.  I entered the store, which was probably beyond capacity, for the entire staff, it was all hands on deck.  The Genius Bar was closed for the rest of the day, so that all employees could assist customers buying Macs, iPods, iPhones, and software, mostly Mac OS X.

When it was my turn, a Mac Specialist greeted me.  He asked me what I wanted and my t-shirt size.  (This was the last product launch with a t-shirt for customers.)  In no time, a request for an iMac and a Mac OS X Leopard Family Pack was placed.  While waiting for my Mac and software to come out, the Mac Specialist got a t-shirt for me.  Then the Mac Specialist made sure I received everything I wanted, transacted my purchase, and bid me a fond farewell.

Almost two years later Mac OS X Snow Leopard launched, and I was a Specialist in the Apple Store.  However, the Snow Leopard release was underwhelming.  By this time strategy for product launch changed to an overnight setup the night before, for the store to open at 8:00 AM.

On this particular Friday, 28th of August 2009, I had been awake for more than twenty-four hours, as I was one of the employees that prepared the store the night before.  I remember feeling particularly silly that morning, due to lack of sleep, and disappointed that a queue did not form in front of the store.  That day was mostly business as usual, atypical for a launch day. The Snow Leopard launch, which didn’t feel like a launch was similar to the launch of the Apple Watch, as all watches were ordered online and delivered to customers.  (Because Apple Watch wasn’t available in the stores, it didn’t feel like a typical product launch.)

For the launch of the iPhone 4, iPad, iPad 2, and (Mac) OS X Lion, I was working in a New York City flagship store.  This store was large and had so many employees, that I was able to stay in-role as a Genius that day.  The managers opened the Genius Bar for technical support just a few hours after the store opened, which was unexpected.  There were so many Specialists and Experts that technicians simply weren’t needed to assist with sales.

The iPad launch was special.  This was a brand new product category, the old strategy of the store closing at 2:00 PM was reinstated one last time.  During the four hours the store was closed, employees not helping with setup of the store or delivering water and coffee to customers in the queue, were learning about iPad.  (In these days, most of our training was last-minute.)

Just before the store reopened, our managers were giving us a pep talk.  It was like preaching to the choir.  We were all so excited to talk to customers about iPad.  The minutes before the doors opened were exhilarating.  We all began to hype each other up.  And while were getting excited, clapping, and shouting, I happened to see Kelsey Grammer standing with the managers.  He came to hang out at the Apple Store for the launch of iPad.

The launches of iPad 2, (Mac) OS X Lion, iPhone 4S, iPhone 5, iPhone 5s, and iPhone 6 were similar to each other, many customers and relatively smooth.  The use of Reservation Pass made queue management easier and a better customer experience.  This is was not the case in 2008 for the launch of iPhone 3G.

On the 11th of July, iPhone 3G was launched with iPhone OS 2 (iOS), the App Store, MobileMe, iTunes 7.7.  And for the first time, iPhone was subsidized by AT&T and was activated in-store.  The overwhelming number of customers crippled the activation process.  This was a rough weekend for customers and both Apple and AT&T employees.

When I arrived for my 11:00 AM shift, my colleagues were letting me know that iPhones could not be activated for about 15 minutes.  They correctly predicted that servers would crash when the West Coast stores opened.  (The activation servers crashed at 9:00 AM, when stores in the Central Time Zone opened, and at 10:00 AM when stores in the Mountain Time Zone opened.)

That Friday some customers walked into the Apple Store with a working mobile phone, and walked out with their account in upgrade limbo.  Their original phone did not receive calls, and their new iPhone did not receive calls.  In many cases the issue would not be resolved in less than 24 hours.  This was likely the worst day in Apple Retail history

Since the launch of iPhone 3G, Apple has taken steps to ensure launch day isn’t plagued with so many technical issues.  Upgrades to iOS are released days prior to the launch of new iPhone models.  The activation process is virtually foolproof, and the activation servers are robust, even to accommodate the substantially higher number of customers.  And the support from the carriers is notably better than it was in 2008.

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