How AT&T made Steve Jobs look bad...again

Could tethering mobile devices with laptops have saved Steve Jobs WWDC keynote from being overtaken by Wi-Fi users?

Dave Rosenberg Co-founder, MuleSource
Dave Rosenberg has more than 15 years of technology and marketing experience that spans from Bell Labs to startup IPOs to open-source and cloud software companies. He is CEO and founder of Nodeable, co-founder of MuleSoft, and managing director for Hardy Way. He is an adviser to DataStax, IT Database, and Puppet Labs.
Dave Rosenberg
3 min read

At Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference on Monday, CEO Steve Jobs had an embarrassing onstage moment when he lost his Wi-Fi connection during his keynote presentation as he tried to download files to demo the difference in screen quality between an iPhone 3GS and the new iPhone 4.

The download failed, and his demo crashed on the new iPhone 4 because he couldn't maintain a solid Wi-Fi connection.

Help a brother out with some bandwidth. James Martin/CNET

Certainly not the optimal time for a demo to fail, but at least now Jobs knows how iPhone users feel every day, as we suffer with AT&T's poor cellular network performance. And it should be pointed out that device tethering between attendees' laptops and cell phones may well have reduced these issues, if only AT&T allowed users to tether.

After the initial crash, Jobs later came back and asked people to turn off their access points (as in their MiFi, which is a line of compact wireless routers produced by Novatel Wireless that act as mobile Wi-Fi hot spots).

Jobs claimed that there were 570 of them in that hall. As Sam Diaz at ZDNet pointed out, "The problem is that if 10 percent of the 5,000 people in an audience create their own Wi-Fi networks in that room, there are now 500+ 'networks' all competing for the same wireless spectrum to transmit those signals--including the original Wi-Fi networks that the presenter has established in the room."

After some time, as he pressured more people to turn off their cell phones and put their laptops to sleep, he managed to do the demo. CNET's own Rafe Needleman made the excellent point that your bad network is not my problem on his ProPR Tips blog.

It's understandable that Jobs would get upset about something not working in a demo, but it's shocking that the company didn't set up a special network for him, instead hoping for the best on a consistently flaky Moscone Center Wi-Fi network. And, of course, the demand for everyone to comply in their own best interest to see the demo is so typically egotistical of Apple that it's not even shocking anymore.

On Tuesday, I spoke with Mahboud Zabetian, founder and chairman of WildPackets, who was at the keynote. According to Zabetian, the problem was that the new iPhone 4 is 802.11n, and the other iPhone 3GS used in the demo was 802.11g.

Apparently, most of the access points in use at the event were 802.11n, and there are only so many networks you can have in close proximity on 802.11. The new iPhone just could not get the signal from the access point that it needed to. Its signal was getting stepped on by "bloggers."

Zabetian made an excellent point to me that if AT&T allowed tethering of iPhones to laptops, then the people at the event probably wouldn't have been forced to set up their own networks--they could simply have used their phones for bandwidth.

And odds are that it was the combination of nontethered devices such as iPhones that were jumping on and off the wireless network that was causing so much signal interruption.

It's pretty amazing that in this day and age of wireless ubiquity, and Apple's newly minted position at the top of technology market capitalization, the company would allow itself to be undone by a flaky Wi-Fi connection.