Why is Apple So Incompetent?

Why is Apple unable to meet the demand for its products?


A few years back, I switched from a Blackberry to an iPhone 3GS because the Atlantic Council stopped reimbursing me for the former and instead put me on a corporate plan for the latter. The 3GS served me reasonably well and I upgraded to a 4S a couple years later when the former’s telephone function stopped operating and, fortuitously, I was eligible for a free upgrade anyway.

When I transitioned to nonresident senior fellow status, I asked and the Council allowed me to stay on their plan for another month on the grounds that the 5S was due to hit a couple weeks later and it would be silly to lock myself into a two year contract for an outdated phone. Apple released the phone later than scheduled but finally got around to doing it. Yet, I can’t actually get the phone because, for reasons that escape me, Apple didn’t make nearly enough to meet demand.

It’s not as if Apple doesn’t realize releasing a new model will lead to a rush to upgrade. Hell, that’s the whole point. So, why are they too incompetent to make enough phones to stock their stores? I don’t have time to order one and wait a month for it to arrive–I’ve got to buy something soon.

I’m seriously tempted to just get a phone from a different company at this point. Several Samsung products, in particular, are comparable to the iPhone and quite a bit less expensive. Frankly, the only things holding me back are that I’m already in the Apple ecosystem with both an iPhone and iPad and already have applications for it and the fact that my four-year-old enjoys playing games on both.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Eric says:

    If you plan on going for an android phone, I highly recommend the unlock versions of Samsung Galaxy, HTC One or the Moto X. They are clean android operating system and they do not have the extra “crapware” you would usually get. Personally, I think you should wait for Nexus 5 (I have Nexus 4 and I love it).

  2. john personna says:

    I am pretty sure this is a coy defense of Day One problems with insurance exchanges, and yes, optimal strategy is not always to meet peak demand.

    Building out for peak demand may make people happy for a few weeks, but may carry the burden of excess capacity for the next few years.

    And so you balance, for initial satisfaction, and long term costs.

    (I too need a phone, and am tempted just to go for a random $150 Android model from Straighttalk. That puts me in good position to buy again in a year or two.)

  3. john personna says:


    I really wish I’d nabbed the $199 Nexus 4 closeout.

    Do you have any knowledge of the “lesser brands” at Straight Talk? Huawei Ascend Plus (H881C)? Or ZTE Majesty?

  4. David M says:

    @john personna:

    Wow, the Nexus 4 was a good deal when I got it for $299…

  5. Tony W says:

    Nokia Lumia 1050 – awesome phone, highly recommended.

  6. mantis says:

    James, you need to get out in the private sector more. The initial runs on popular new products is never sustained. After the big launch, things settle down. To do what you are asking would a) delay launch while many more products are manufactured or b) require the manufacturers to greatly scale up production facilities and personnel to meet the initial demand, and then have underused capacity for years following. Apple isn’t incompetent for failing to have enough devices for everyone who wants one at launch, they are people who know how to plan manufacturing for the long term.

    Or maybe they have no clue what they are doing, because you have to have one specific phone but can’t plan ahead for something entirely predictable.

  7. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: That makes some sense, except that it would seem to me they’d indeed have been better off delaying launch a couple weeks to build up a stockpile. I’d think they’re pissing off a lot of potential customers here.

    @mantis: I did plan ahead: I delayed turning in my company phone a month in anticipation of what was supposed to be a 12 September launch of a new phone. I’m not sure what it was I was supposed to do. Delay taking a new job until Apple got the supply line working here?

  8. mantis says:

    @James Joyner:

    . I’m not sure what it was I was supposed to do.

    Preorder the phone if you want it at launch because there are always shortages at launch.

  9. gVOR08 says:

    Most people don’t have a deadline for changing phones. I expect that someone in Apple marketing works very closely with manufacturing/procurement to determine an optimum shortage for rollout. Perceived scarcity increases demand.

  10. al-Ameda says:

    I’ve been using a Nokia 820 for a while now. It is Windows (OS8) and it cost me $1, with a 2 year AT&T contract. Not as many apps as iPhone and ‘Droid, but enough for my use. The camera feature is very good. The OS is very smooth. I hope that Microsoft’s purchase of Nokia’s smartphone unit doesn’t go south.

    I had an iPhone for a while, but switched out just because …

    So far just fine.

  11. James Joyner says:

    @gVOR08: Fair enough, although I expected to have plenty of time. Launch was considerably delayed.

  12. David in KC says:

    James, the announcement and launch match up with Apple’s normal fall product launch. As to not making enough, they sold 9 million 5S’s and 5C’s the opening weekend. For them to make “enough” for initial demand but still have appropriate production facilities for on going demand after the initial run is difficult. Apple seems to do a good job of managing long term supply, and I am unsure that any manufacturer could deal with that amount of initial demand.

  13. Mark Wickens says:

    Apple released the phone later than scheduled

    No, it didn’t.

  14. grumpy realist says:

    James, I bet one reason Apple doesn’t make more product available initially is because they know there are going to be glitches in the product and it’s much easier to fix something before selling it rather than after selling it. The initial surge of customers are their Stage III trial population, as it were. Any glitches that show up they will be getting an earful on!

    Plus, most people are willing to wait and see, read reviews, hear from their friends who have brought the product, etc. before jumping in.

  15. grumpy realist says:

    Also, if you consider Apple “incompetent”, I’d hate to see what you’d say about Microsoft…

  16. Liberal Capitalist says:

    After spending nearly two years with the Samsung Galaxy S3, I am considering the move to the monstrously sized Galaxy Note 3…


    Love the android phone for far too many reasons to list, and now bigger really is better. (The viewable screen side is bigger than an iPhone itself!)

    The wife (a technical luddite) gets an iPhone.

    It’s so cute. She has a pink case.

    HAHAHAhahahahahah !

  17. matt says:

    You can order it online right now to have it shipped to you (order times are currently listed as “October”); that should allow you to pay for it now. Or, you can do what I did, which is use the “Apple Store” app to place an order late at night (10 PM) for pickup at your nearest Apple Store the next day. I did this last night and picked mine up this morning (16 GB AT&T / space grey). You also avoid the lines because your slot is guaranteed.

    This in-store pickup option is really the best bet. If you don’t see it as listed in stock (it shows up about mid-way through the checkout process), then try again the next day. I used this same strategy with the iPhone 5 last year, and it works pretty well. Basically, each store gets a number of phones every day or so and makes a number of them available to people who purchase this way. It seems to be not very well known, too, based on the number of people I passed in line this morning who were there early taking a risk they’d be able to get one.

  18. Gustopher says:

    You’re just going to have to accept that you won’t get the shiny gold one with all that bling, and settle for the gray.

    I know, I know, you teach at a military academy and none of the students will respect anyone with a boring gray phone when they could have gotten the shiny gold, but the little gold ring around the fingerprint sensor is kind of tacky anyway.

  19. James Joyner says:

    @matt: I’ll give that a shot. It insists on getting my account number, which I don’t have since it’s not my account, in order to keep my number, which was mine before I move to the Council’s account.

    @Gustopher: I’d pay extra NOT to have it in gold. The space gray would be just fine.

  20. matt says:

    It sounds like your problem might be with the cell phone company. I imagine there will be no shortage of red tape doing what you want to do. I’d suggest going to an AT&T (or whatever) store to separate the number from the newer account; I imagine it will have to be on your own new account, with you as the account holder, for you to do what you want. You might also just try signing up for a new cell phone account *via* the Apple Store app, and then worry about transferring your number afterwards.

    In my experience, doing slightly off-the-beaten-path stuff with a cell phone company involves plenty of pain.

  21. Joel says:

    I don’t think the Apple analogy is quite apt, because you don’t actually need the newest iPhone/iOS and you don’t get fined for not using it.

    With that said, the government does have several months to fix things. And I work in programming, so I know how unexpected bugs come up.

  22. Michael says:

    So the main reason you see Apple as incompetent is because you can’t buy their super popular phone? I would imagine they’re making as many as possible, and similarly they would like to sell that many.

    I would agree, that if this is a difficult scenario to comprehend, then go buy a more readily available phone from a more “competent” company that can properly line store shelves.

    It obviously won’t hurt Apple.

  23. Michael says:

    @gVOR08: But they sold more than anyone estimated… there is no perceived scarcity, there is just scarcity.

  24. Michael says:

    @James Joyner:
    “I did plan ahead: I delayed turning in my company phone a month in anticipation of what was supposed to be a 12 September launch of a new phone. I’m not sure what it was I was supposed to do.”

    This is what you call planning ahead?

    Here’s what I did: Went to the AT&T store 30 mins before it opened.

    Voila, I have a space grey 5S.

  25. James Joyner says:

    @Michael: Silly me. I went to work rather than standing in line at the mall, presuming Apple would anticipate that their highly touted phone would sell well, as did their previous dozen releases, and stock accordingly.

  26. Michael says:

    We’ll there you go. There’s no need to presume when you can look at prior evidence. This isn’t a situation that surprises a lot of people, it’s just par for the course. Creating a situation where demand outstrips supply, but you still break throughput records, is difficult to classify as incompetent. Take a step back from the article as a whole and it just seems like entitled whining. I thought that was supposed to remain IN the beltway.

    The next example of this phenomena will probably be the console launches in November.

    Either way, just go buy a phone people don’t want so much and problem solved. You’ll at least be buying from a more competent company.

  27. MarkedMan says:

    James, I gotta say, you’ve been in grumpy old man mode about quite a few of life’s annoyances lately ;-). FWIW Apple stocked and sold twice as many iPhones for this rollout as they did for the five. In trying to anticipate exactly the problem you described they pre-built 9 Million Phones, a number that, if it had been made public, no shortage of pundits would have challenged them on as being wildly over optimistic. Apple does a lot of things wrong and im no apologist, but manufacturing and shipping 9 million of anything to thousands of locations all over the world and scheduling them to arrive on the exact same day is no small feat. In fact I can’t think of another company that could pull it off.

  28. dazedandconfused says:

    Here’s that article of Steve Jobs describing getting things made in China, in which he makes it sound easy.


    Here’s a snip:

    What does China’s competitive edge look like in practice?
    One example from The Times article: When Jobs decided just a month before the iPhone hit markets to replace a scratch-prone plastic screen with a glass one, a Foxconn factory in China woke up about 8,000 workers when the glass screens arrived at midnight, and the workers were assembling 10,000 iPhones a day within 96 hours. Another example: Apple had originally estimated that it would take nine months to hire the 8,700 qualified industrial engineers needed to oversee production of the iPhone; in China, it took 15 days. Anecdotes like that leave you “feeling almost impressed by the no-holds-barred capabilities of these manufacturing plants,” says Edward Moyer at CNET News, “impressed and queasy at the same time.”

    I would bet the farm they were lucky on this one, doubt anybody can pull a rabbit out of their hat (or yank want ever out of you-know-where) at that scale of production every time. “Just make more”? Might be something like wondering why elevators have to stop at the top of buildings.

    Looks like the SOP for them is maxing out the worlds max production facility’s. Murphy loves big projects.

  29. Informatica says:

    Samsung phones are as good as the apple but if you need a phone like Apple IOS, not an android phone.

  30. Ian Davies says:

    You’re a whiny, self-entitled tool, you know that?

    You should also look up the words “incompetent”, “schedule” and “comparable” since they don’t mean what you seem to think they mean.

  31. Concerned Citizen says:

    James, I think it would be best for you to change your cellphone supplier. If you go with an Android or Windows phone, you’ll never have to worry about lines at the mall or roll-out shortages. Security is not a concern for either Android or Windows.

    If for some reason you must stay with Apple, next time you should call Tim Cook directly and let him know when you need the new model so he can rearrange the production and roll-out schedules around your needs.

    Please let me know how that works-out for you.

  32. Concerned Citizen says:

    @James Joyner:

    Are you basing your expectation of a launch date on an official Apple statement or on pundit speculation?

  33. Michael says:

    @Concerned Citizen: I remember many outlets mis-reporting the announcement date as the launch date. I think that’s what’s up… but even then that’s only a 2 week window when I think words like “considerable” were used.

  34. Steve says:

    Congratulations! Macaloped: “So, here we hit the crux of Joyner’s complaint: Apple didn’t make its new phone available on his timetable. This is how he defines ‘incompetence.’ …Did the national security think tank you work for know that your kid was playing games on the phone they paid for? The Macalope hopes one of those games wasn’t ‘Global Thermonuclear War.'”

  35. Paul says:

    iPhones frequently sell out on launch day. If one wanted to be certain of getting the new phone on Day 1, reserve in advance. The analogy would be that you went to a popular restaurant on Friday night at 7 p.m. and were miffed to find out they had no tables.


  36. CommonSense says:

    James, please do some research into … well, anything … before using your platform to spew forth your ignorance.

    1. Apple’s iPhone 5s was not in any way delayed. It occurred at the exact same time as the previous model’s release last year. Just because someone supposes based on rumors that a company will release a product, does not mean the company is at fault when those rumors turn out to be false. And, frankly, it was “known” since August that Apple would hold its special event when it did, and assumed that iPhones would be made available on the Friday of the following week as has been the case in previous years.

    2. You do recognize that Apple sold a record-breaking 9 million smartphones (iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c models) in their opening weekend, correct? That is nearly double the number they sold the previous year with the iPhone 5.

    3. You are completely clueless in regards to the production process of these devices and their distribution. Even a slight amount of research would have told you that supply of the iPhone 5s would be constrained at first (due to difficulty manufacturing the Touch ID sensor in sufficient quantities), but supply would grow to meet demand not long after (as is usually the case).

    4. Anyone with any experience purchasing iPhones on their release day would tell you that if you don’t want to experience a delay, you need to be on your computer at 12:01 Pacific (3:01 EST) to be ready to order one online. That is the only way to really, truly make sure you get what you want.

    Maybe, rather than ignorantly complaining about how Apple is incompetent because they didn’t cater specifically to you, you should do some research into the products you buy and recognize the best buying strategies, AND recognize the immense feat that Apple accomplished rolling out these iPhone products worldwide. That’s not incompetence, friend. Far from it.

  37. Disappointed American says:

    There’s are the type of people that are running our country into the ground. Apple didn’t release their phone when I needed it…wah wah….I apparently know nothing about getting an iPhone at launch and had no way to find out what to do…..wah wah. Please go over to some Android phone and leave Apple alone.

  38. Pointless Login says:

    Wow. What a whiny blog post. Still, it’s getting you more page views I suppose.

    You could have done what I did. Go to the AT&T store late in the afternoon on the day it was released. If you wanted the black / grey one they had plenty of stock. Walk in, do the upgrade with a member of staff, walk out with a new phone. No need to miss work, no need to get all whiny about someone else paying for your phone for a month longer than they had to.

    But it’s interesting to see how you define incompetence. I’ll bear it in mind if I even come back to read any more of your insight.

  39. jj says:

    James, you state repeatedly that this phone was released later than scheduled. In your main post:

    “Apple released the phone later than scheduled”

    And again in the comments section:

    “Launch was considerably delayed.”

    What was the scheduled date of release that Apple announced for the phone, and when did they announce the delayed release date? All their press releases can be easily found online. Please provide us with links to the announcements that prove that it was “released later than scheduled” and was “considerably delayed”, as you repeatedly and confidently claim.

  40. Mystified says:

    Is the Atlantic Council a publicly-funded body?
    Do they approve of expensive tech equipment supplied for use by its staff being used as playthings for four year olds?

  41. I can’t tell you how often I have wanted to like this
    on Tagged.

  42. A Muscaria says:

    … and I went to the beach, and it was too sandy.