Buying An iPhone 3G Was Surprisingly Easy. Activating It Was Not.

As Consumerist’s resident Apple fanboy, I spent the last few hours standing outside an AT&T store waiting to buy the iPhone 3G, then waiting for it to activate in iTunes. Here’s what went down.

Unfortunately, there was nothing as exciting as what happened during my last iPhone purchase. I’m in New Orleans, and I figured people here wouldn’t care as much as residents of other cities did. I was wrong. I showed up around 7:20, forty minutes before the store was supposed to open, and about forty people were already in line.The mood was a lot calmer than I remember it being in DC. This may have been because there were no sketchy dealings with elected officials’ goons skipping the line and exiting with several iPhones. The AT&T store staff was friendly and helpful; they came around several times with bottled water (it’s pretty hot in New Orleans in July, even early in the morning). They were also very good about warning people far back in the line that they were probably out of luck. Early on, they went down the line asking each customer what he or she intended to buy and counted them up. They came out a little later and stopped by me and said we might get phones, but everyone beyond us probably would have to order them. As it turned out, they were right: I got the last iPhone they had.
I can’t say anything bad about the AT&T store. I can say plenty about AT&T corporate and Apple. Just like last year, they were totally unprepared for the launch. Gizmodo had spoken to a few sources about how many iPhones the AT&T stores would be getting:

AT&T wouldn’t comment on how many per store, but Gary thinks north of 50-75, even in the boondocks, and another source tells us 100-250. Though AT&T wouldn’t comment on the spread, logically, stores in more populated areas are going to get more.

The AT&T store I went to, in a commercial area of New Orleans, got 40. When I spoke to one of the store’s reps, she said she was surprised they got so few this year because the line had been at least twice as long last year, and only about half of this year’s line got phones. Whether this was poor planning or Apple trying to claim that it sold out across stores nationwide to further the buzz, I don’t know. This store is getting more stock to sell sometime tomorrow, but per corporate rules, they can’t create a waiting list from the people in line today who didn’t get phones. Those people have to “direct order” them (pay for them now and have them arrive in 7-10 days) or go get in line again tomorrow.
Like many others, I also had problems activating my phone. I keep getting the same “An unknown error occurred” in iTunes each time I plug the iPhone in. I swapped the provided sim card out for the one I was using with my old iPhone, but still nothing. Then, as I was writing this, I received a text message and suddenly was able to make calls. I still get error messages when I sync with iTunes, but at least I’ll be able to make calls while Apple and AT&T figure out who’s to blame.
Overall, the line wasn’t too bad, the AT&T staff was helpful, and most of the customers—save one who apparently didn’t realize that the discounted prices were for new contracts or iPhone customers, not existing customers—were normal. It’s a little ironic that New Orleans, the most bizarre place I’ve ever lived, was lacking any iPhone high jinks, drama, or scandal.