Houston Chronicle Computing column: Computing: Picking up iPhone 4 as tough as ordering it?

| Posted in | Posted on

Jun. 22--Last week, after what seemed like endless speculation, wishful thinking and the kind of frantic hype that only a new Apple product can inspire, pre-orders began for the next-generation iPhone.

If gadget lust drove you to AT&T's Web site hoping to be one of the first to have an iPhone 4, chances are good it didn't go well. Apple says it sold 600,000 of its new smartphones last Tuesday, but many prospective buyers were frustrated by the collapse of both Apple's and AT&T's online ordering systems.

For example, I started trying to order an iPhone 4 at 7 a.m. I was not successful until sometime after 2 p.m. -- more than seven hours later. Fingers crossed -- a uniformed courier will deliver a 32-gigabyte model to my door sometime Thursday.

But what if you're one of the many who chose to reserve an iPhone 4 to be picked up at an Apple retail store? Or, what if you are planning to engage in the ritual camp-out, hoping to just walk in and buy an iPhone 4? What can you expect?

Apple Stores will open at 7 a.m. on Thursday. Expect two lines -- one for those with reservations, and one for those without. It's possible the former will be longer than the latter.

The Web option that allowed customers to reserve a phone for pickup often worked last week when an outright purchase did not. Customers who have those reservations must show up between the 7 a.m. opening and the close of business Thursday to claim their phone. (Store closing times vary.)

Try your luck elsewhere

And there will be a lot of folks coming by to pick one up. A Houston-area Apple Store employee told me his particular location has more than 800 reservations. Customers who reserved phones in advance will get priority and, if necessary, store staff will dip into the pool designated for walk-ins to honor those reservations, the employee said.

If you'd rather not join the hordes at the Apple Stores (there are five in the Houston area), try your luck at Best Buy, Radio Shack and even Walmart, which will be carrying the phone on launch day. Best Buy and Radio Shack were both offering pre-orders last week for in-store pickup.

If you don't mind waiting, you can still pre-order and buy online now, but at this writing, the phone won't ship until July 14.

And that may be the way to go, if you're worried about more problems on Thursday.

Dissecting the meltdown

Last week's meltdown may have been a lot more serious than just the inability to sell the hottest new gadget.

Both Apple's and AT&T's computer systems buckled under the rush of iPhone 4 pre-orders, but the problems appeared to have been exacerbated by AT&T's process for checking whether buyers were eligible for deep discounts for orders placed on both sites. AT&T's collapse included reports of privacy breaches of some customers' sensitive data. The popular gadget blog Gizmodo received screen shots from purported AT&T customers who logged into their accounts, only to find themselves looking at other people's information.

Gizmodo also reported that some iPhone 4 buyers on the Apple site found shipping addresses pulled from AT&T's systems were not their own. The reported problems suggest that when Apple connected to AT&T's system to check iPhone 4 discount eligibility, AT&T's computers in some instances returned incorrect information. (A note about Gizmodo: The site is involved in a brewing legal dispute with Apple and California authorities over its purchase of a lost iPhone 4 prototype.)

No repeat of 2008, please

Based on my experience of attempting to order an iPhone 4, the hang-up on Apple's site appeared to be with contacting AT&T's network for eligibility information. Neither Apple nor AT&T has offered any technical details about what went wrong, though Apple publicly apologized. AT&T has said it is looking into the reported privacy breaches, but has not been able to duplicate them.

Hopefully, Apple and AT&T will have a more robust system ready when it comes time to ring up and activate those phones. No one wants a repeat of 2008's debacle, when the companies' phone activation systems buckled under the load of iPhone 3G sales. But after last week, I don't think anyone would be surprised if it did.