A few days ago the iPhone celebrated its 10th anniversary.
I was at T-Mobile when the iPhone was announced. Now mind you.. I had been – like many other Steve Jobs fans – been following news and rumors out of Apple for months: The various patents being filed, rumors of a iPod with a full touch screen, etc. All of the rumors pointed to a phone. I had only been a T-Mobile a couple of months when the product launch happened. When the unveiling occurred in this huge media event that Steve loved to hold I looked at my boss, Shawn and said; “So when are we carrying it?”
“We’re not”; Shawn said.
I’ve never told Shawn this, but I almost put my badge on her desk that day and walked out of the building…
Apparently Steve Jobs had approached T-Mobile CEO at the time, Robert Dotson, about carrying the phone. And apparently approached T-Mobile *first*.. before AT&T. Robert was lukewarm about it. He wanted a MyFaves icon on the phone. MyFaves was a big product of T-Mobile at the time – unlimited talking and texting to your friends in your ‘faves’ list. I know.. don’t remember it? Neither does anyone else. He also wanted the myFaves “Paw Print” on the back of the phone. Steve said ‘No’; The device was to be shipped as is. And you didn’t mess with Steve’s vision for a product. Later a bunch of us learned that at the time, APIs for app development weren’t fully baked and I think Steve was worried that someone would hack cellular networks until they had all the security tiers in place – and that’s why he wasn’t allowing any customizations, but I digress.
T-Mobile CEO at the time, Robert Dotson turned down the iPhone and in the press dismissed it as a “kids toy”. I was stunned.. anyone who was even tangentially watching Steve rebuild the Apple name and had seen what he had been accomplishing *knew* that what he was working on was going to be huge. He didn’t do things on some lark like Tim Cook does with “AirPods” (lord, give me strength).
Many people at the company asked the same question “What are we going to do then? This is going to be huge for AT&T.” He was even asked that question with Deutsche Telecom’s CEO at the time, René Obermann, sitting right next to him in an all-hands meeting. The look that René gave him when he was asked the question created an air that was palpable. Especially given that DT *was* carrying the iPhone in Germany; The look was; ‘Well, they asked.. answer it.” Dotson basically said; ‘We’re going to have something *better*.’ Later he *literally* said that in product meetings with development teams.. that the 2008 Product Roadmap included a “Better than iPhone” device. That’s all it said on the PowerPoint: In 2008 – Better than iPhone!
His idea of “better” was the T-Mobile G1 – running Android 1.5. It was anemic.. clunky.. and crashed.. a lot. It wasn’t ready for primetime, but Google had run so far behind schedule that T-Mobile had to get something out. Anything.. because AT&T was eating T-Mobile’s lunch in a big way. Churn aka port-outs were constant.. and huge. That one decision.. that single moment.. defined the course that company took for *years*.. It was almost a course to oblivion.. Even after *every* *other* *carrier* had the iPhone – including *prepaid* carriers where you paid full price for the phone – T-Mobile still didn’t have it.. Rumors were that Jobs and the iPhone sales divisions were still so pissed with T-Mobile that even after Dotson’s exit they still were putting up huge barriers for entry into T-Mobile carrying the phone.. higher purchase fees and upfront orders than anyone else. And of course T-Mobile’s 4G spectrum was incompatible with the phone until roughly 6 years later. I had execs be dismissive with me; “You know.. the iPhone isn’t a panacea.. it’s not going to just magically solve our problems”. The day the iPhone formally launched and John Legere finally got Apple to come to agreement with T-Mobile, you could see the port-outs literally grind to almost zero.
The iPhone wasn’t a panacea – but it cauterized the sucking chest wound the company had been living with since 2007.
T-Mobile is now just one of the “Big 3” carriers. The culture that made working there 10 years ago fun is gone. And Dotson is gone into obscurity for his lack of vision. All for that one moment.
Happy Anniversary iPhone.