AT&T Screws Up Apple iPhone Launch

When Apple announced the general outlines of the iPhone service, one of the things that the techies pounced on was that the data would run on AT&T’s EDGE technology, which is slow by modern standards.

Turns out that may be the lesser part of the network worries. Because the new iPhones are sold without a plan (you get the hardware and activate it yourself via ITunes), the actual process of buying one is like buying any other consumer product, meaning you pay your money and you are gone (versus the usual, tedious, form-filling-out that goes one with buying a new cell phone). Thus iPhones got into the hands of people in queues pretty fast.

And AT&Ts activation system is swamped. Users are getting error messages like this:

It’s even worse if you tried to port your phone number over. Some customers have wound up having their old service deactivated while the transition is in process.

Moreover, this inability to activate the phone means all users have is a beautiful slab that toggles between two screens, You can’t even use the iPod or camera functions until the phone is activated.

This is not only hugely frustrating to customers, but it’s a complete shame, because from what little I can tell, the launch was a success on all other dimensions. The lines in Manhattan were large, and the object lust is palpable. I heard about the activation mess from a buddy who was so excited about the phone he had to bring it over to show it to me Friday evening, and even in its almost totally useless state, it’s quite a thing to behold. The screens are simply remarkable, and the touch screen works perfectly (and for me, with lousy manual dexterity, it works better than mechanical buttons).

If AT&T can get this fixed by early next week, this problem will probably be in the same category as the iPod Nano problems (remember some of the ones in the first release cracked, but Apple replaced them quickly), meaning an embarrassment that doesn’t do permanent damage to the product’s image (let’s face it, most consumers of technology are smart or skeptical enough not to buy the 1.0 version). But if this continues unresolved, it could tarnish the product. It also demonstrates why Apple historically has seldom partnered. Partners introduce greater chance of screw-ups.

Some sort of concession from AT&T to users who had trouble would be a smart gesture, but I wouldn’t count on AT&T being smart about this.

For more information, see:

iPhone Activation Problems Plaguing Countless New iPhone Owners

iPhone Activation Problems Plaguing Countless New iPhone Owners

iPhone Activation Disasters

Update (9:30 PM EDT): AT&T is doing a terrible job in its stores as well as on its network. One comment below suggests the problem is that AT&T is paying its employees commissions to activate the phones in the stores, which holds up all buyers, and making no effort to manage the queue.

The whole motivation for AT&T to offer the iPhone was to attract new customers. But they seem to be doing everything they can to undermine that opportunity. More details from, “A Tale of Two Companies: iPhone Launch, AT&T Vs. Apple Store“:

One of our readers, Frank Beacham, wrote in this morning after experiencing the iPhone launch first-hand in lines at both AT&T and the Apple. We thought his piece was well-written and quite telling about the difference in customer service between the two companies, so we posted it:

Last night, at the last minute, I succumbed to iPhone lust as I passed a line in front of an AT&T store on Broadway in the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

The line was less than a hundred, and it seemed for a while that the wait might not be too long. Wrong! The employees at the AT&T store at 2195 Broadway were in no hurry. In fact, a woman employee at the door seemed annoyed by all the people in line and would offer no information about wait times or availability of the iPhones.

But one thing she did make certain, this AT&T location was closing at 11 p.m., line or no line. There were no promises to service those who had been waiting for hours.

A friendly restaurant next door handed free samples of a mango drink and even offered take-out food, but not one AT&T employee ever came outside to interact with waiting customers or to explain the situation.

At about 9 p.m. a customer who finally got in the store spilled the beans that all the 8 GB models were sold out. AT&T remained silent. At this point, several of us hopped cabs to head to the nearby Apple
store on 5th Ave. There, we saw the other side of this take of two American companies.

Even though the line was longer than that at AT&T, the wait was short — less than 15 minutes. Friendly Apple employees stood by with wireless credit card terminals taking orders. The process took only
minutes. Leaving the store, a cheering row of Apple workers high-fived new iPhone owners.

Day one revealed what all Apple aficionados fear. That AT&T, through the depths of its incompetence, could derail the iPhone.

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  1. Yves Smith

    Thanks for the update, but there are people who have have been waiting much longer than four hours. One colleague started the process at 9 p.m. Pacific time Friday and is still waiting (it’s now 18 hours later).
    Apparently the delay now is with people porting numbers from other carriers. Anyone getting a new number (and I presume also existing AT&T customers) is now able to activate right away.

    Customers were supposed to get a temporary number to use while their old number was being ported, and the port was supposed to take 6 hours or less, according to the FAQ on iTunes when you are signing up. That isn’t happening.

  2. Anonymous

    I went to the AT&T store with the intention of buying 2 phones (one for me, one for my wife on the family plan). After standing in line for 1 hour, word made it back through the line (of 30 people) that we had to sign a list at the front of the line. Apparently, the AT&T representatives get a commission if the phone is activated in the store as opposed to at home–so they activated a bunch of phones in the store, which made the line crawl. After dicking around in line for 30 minutes and discovering they were out of 8GB models, I left and called the Apple Store–they picked up and said they a) had tons of 8GBs left and b) the line was moving very quickly. I stood in line for 2 minutes at the Apple store and 2) minutes checking out. AT&T definitely fucked up what was supposed to be a very easy sale. Setup was flawless, easy, and the phone rocks. It solves a lot of issues for me and enables me to lighten my gadget load when I’m traveling.

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