“iPocalypse” now: The perils of event marketing

July 12, 2008, 12:06 PM UTC

The upside of simultaneously launching four major products — the iPhone 3G, the App Store, iPhone firmware 2.0 and MobileMe — in more than 20 countries around the world is that you get people’s attention.

That’s not an easy thing to do in this media-saturated age.

The downside of this form of event marketing — which Steve Jobs pioneered — is that you risk blowing it on a really big stage, in this case by overloading your servers and triggering a global customer satisfaction meltdown.

That’s what happened to Apple (AAPL) on Friday. Too many of the iPhone’s six-million existing customers tried to upgrade to the new firmware just as hundreds of thousand of new iPhone 3G customers were trying to activate their phones on the same iTunes servers.

Complicating matters were spot breakdowns in credit card readers, EasyPay PCs, and the AT&T (T) activation system that failed last year. (AT&T, as Fortune.com reported, was quick to blame this year’s problems on Apple.)

The result was a rolling meltdown across the Earth’s timezones that Gizmodo dubbed the iPocalypse — a coinage that quickly spread (see, for example, the New York Times and All Things Digital.)

[CORRECTION: Credit may actually belong to a Gizmodo reader — one brianhatch — who wrote “my god, it’s the iPocalypse” in a comment date-stamped Friday, 10:09 a.m. EDT.]

Suffering the most were the hundreds of people who had queued up outside Apple Stores — in some cases for as long as a week. Last year the lines moved quickly because the phones could be purchased with the swipe of a credit card and activated at home. This year’s purchase procedure, already complicated by the requirement that customers sign an extended contract with a carrier before leaving the store, bogged down entirely. Progress at the back of the lines slowed to a glacial pace.

The iTunes servers came back up late Friday and by Saturday morning the activation problems were mostly resolved.

But MobileMe, the new basket of Web applications that Apple had promised to have running Wednesday night, was still not working. Visitors trying to use the service got instead this error message (in four languages):

The MobileMe transition is underway but is taking longer than expected. While core services such as desktop mail, iDisk and sync are available, the new MobileMe web applications are not yet online. Thank you for your patience as we complete the upgrade.

For a first-hand account of our descent into activation hell, see Live! From the Fifth Ave. iPhone line.

UPDATE: As several readers have noted, MobileMe works if you go to http://www.me.com. Inexplicably, the mac.com address still produces that four-language error message.

UPDATE 2: Midafternoon Saturday: received an automated message from Apple that MobileMe is working now.