How MiFi ruined Steve Jobs' iPhone 4 demo

10 Jun 2010

At any new product launch, live demos are risky – especially wireless demos, as Apple chief Steve Jobs found out the hard way at this week’s launch of the iPhone 4 at the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC).

Struggling to download web pages on a shiny new iPhone 4, Jobs blamed the Wi-Fi connection in the Moscone conference center – or rather, all the people in the audience trying to use it at the same time.

It turns out Jobs was partially right – the problem was all the other Wi-Fi users in the room, but not because they were overloading the conference center’s Wi-Fi access points, but because too many people had brought their own Wi-Fi with them.

According to Infoworld, there were over 520 Wi-Fi networks in operation at the same time, thanks to attendees carrying cellular routers like the MiFi, which serves as a portable Wi-Fi hotspot using 3G as a backhaul link.

According to Wi-Fi expert Glenn Fleischman, many audience members with MiFi devices decided to use them on the assumption that the public Wi-Fi network provided for the event would be overloaded with everyone liveblogging and uploading photos.

Which, in theory, would mean less traffic on the public Wi-Fi network, and thus less problems for the iPhone 4 demo. But Fleischman says Jobs’ problem wasn’t traffic congestion but interference from the hundreds of other Wi-Fi hot spots in the audience.

“Wi-Fi can cope with a lot of so-called interference, but the protocol wasn’t designed to handle hundreds of overlapping networks in a small space,” Fleischman wrote in a post for Future Tense.

“With so many networks in operation, every Wi-Fi device (notably Steve’s demo iPhone 4) try to be polite. If you’re in a crowded room, and hundreds of people are talking at once, no one can be understood. People stop talking and try to listen, but with so many people, it’s unlikely you could actually get enough quiet to make a clear statement. That’s precisely what happens with Wi-Fi,” he explains.

Which could mean at the next big Apple launch, you’ll be asked to check your MiFi at the door.

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