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Infrastructure // PC & Servers
03:34 PM

It's Not AT&T's Fault

AT&T is responsible for the imperfections of iPhone user experiences, and has failed to take the steps to satisfy developers, according to recent news reports. I can't believe I'm saying this, but I'm not sure it's AT&T's fault.

AT&T is responsible for the imperfections of iPhone user experiences, and has failed to take the steps to satisfy developers, according to recent news reports. I can't believe I'm saying this, but I'm not sure it's AT&T's fault.It all started at Apple WWDC 2009 in early June, when AT&T was notably absent from carriers involved in the introduction of a tethering function of iPhone OS 3.0, and missing from a list of participants in the upcoming MMS launch. Execs snickered and developers booed. Then the storied MacTech magazine sponsored a poll to gauge how consumers perceive AT&T's lack of support for new iPhone technologies: 97% of respondents agreed that "...[AT&T] should be embarrassed for your support. Shame on you."

Now, even MacTech admits that the poll wasn't particularly scientific -- asking leading questions of folks who visit a survey site dubbed "" is not going to yield an agnostic sample -- but the sentiments resonate because they seem to evoke an underlying truth:

AT&T's coverage and service are inconsistently so-so, at best. But is it the company's fault? Here are four mitigating factors to consider:

Frist, to blame AT&T, you have to presume that Apple is an easy corporate partner which, of course, would be nuts. Apple has never claimed to play well with others. Perhaps AT&T deserves less blame and more credit for making the relationship work, even as imperfectly as it has?

Second, you'd also have to believe that AT&T is any more corporately inept than T-Mobile, Sprint, or any of the other carriers. Again, that would be foolish; they all have their shortcomings, though different, both technical and/or related to service. Third, when it comes to technology products that have a committee of creators, iPhone is not the exception for prompting disappointment. Verizon and Motorola do no better a job chasing the ghosts in their machines than AT&T does with Apple. This is a major shortcoming for the entire category of "complicated things without single, simple support plans."

Finally, AT&T isn't really in the telephony business, any more than its competitors: it sells time by renting its "pipes," so to malign it for not foreseeing the necessity of tethering support, or that its iPhone customers would be so different from the rest of its users to care about it is, well, maybe asking too much?

And there's the rub, ultimately. Nobody expected AT&T to be perfect, and it could have excelled without being so. All it had to do was understand its customers. Everyone knew that iPhone wasn't just another smartphone, and anyone who'd been alive long enough to walk and talk could explain that Apple users were a different breed than your average mobile phone service victims. Nobody loves any of the carriers, so the threshold for surpassing expectations wasn't that terribly high.

AT&T should have understood all this; best case scenario is that it did, but that the deck was just stacked against it. So it may not be to blame for the imperfections in iPhone services.

But I guarantee you that the brand will be held responsible when all those service contracts expire.

Jonathan Salem Baskin writes the Dim Bulb blog and is the author of Branding Only Works On Cattle.

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