Server crashes, slow lines frustrate iPhone buyers

The line for the iPhone 3G has proven to be far slower than its speedy predecessor, as Apple's iTunes servers failed to stay up to activate the hotly anticipated handsets.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
4 min read

This post was updated at 10:34 a.m. PDT with further details of the server issues.

NEW YORK--The process of obtaining an iPhone 3G appears to be going in slow motion because of AT&T activation server crashes that have been confirmed in New York, San Francisco, and Palo Alto, Calif.

Unlike its predecessor last year, the iPhone 3G must be activated in-store, an antihacking measure that Apple had said could take 10 to 15 minutes.

That's long enough to make the line move a lot more slowly than the speedy process that made last year's iPhone launch astonishingly efficient. But crashing AT&T servers required for the activation made it even worse.

The initial lines for the iPhone 3G paled in comparison to the lines for the original iPhone, when everyone predicted shortages, but ultimately, it was possible to waltz into the Apple store several hours after launch time and get a phone almost immediately. Apple set an excellent precedent for any future tech product launches.

It seems as if the iPhone 3G launch has failed to live up to the product launch standard Apple set last year. The new process didn't have the same assembly line precision, as evidenced by the first person to walk out of the Fifth Avenue store with an iPhone: 24-year-old David Yoo estimated that he'd been about 75th in line, but he somehow managed to be first out of the gate with a phone activated.

But later in the morning, overloaded activation servers made lines slow to a crawl, with outages across the country. As the hordes of geeks and bloggers on Twitter reveal, some lines were at a standstill. High-energy product launches can, of course, lead to exaggeration, but it's clear that some people are a bit impatient.

"In-store activation is a really, really bad idea--every line I saw was around the block and not moving," New York-based Fred Benenson wrote. "I tried getting an iPhone today--lines, lines, lines," wrote Darren Herman, who posted photos to his blog of a slow-moving line outside the SoHo Apple store in downtown New York.

But then, in what the Twitter-verse has come to call the "iPocalypse," the servers needed for the activation process crashed completely.

Apple soon ditched the in-store activation and was simply "unbricking" phones, letting buyers activate them at home rather than hold up the line because of crashed servers.

As Apple store employees get the crowd geared up, the first guy waiting
for the iPhone gets restrained by security.
(Credit: Caroline McCarthy/CNET News.com)

CNET News' reporters in San Francisco confirmed this, and later in the day, employees at the New York Apple store confirmed that they were doing this as well. My colleague Tom Krazit was told that while it was initially AT&T's activation servers that crashed, those are back up and that the current problem is with Apple's iTunes.

That's not entirely accurate, AT&T representatives told CNET News.com later. "This is not an AT&T activation server issue...Apple (is) working to address issues affecting its iTunes software right now," an e-mail read. "We are suggesting to our customers that, after purchasing their new iPhone and voice and data plan, they sync the device later at home."

The unbricking process was taking about 10 minutes, even minus the final activation. Around 10 a.m. PT, an Apple store employee in San Francisco informed those waiting in line that the activation service was back up and running.

Outside of major urban hubs, there were also early signs of shortages. Boulder, Colo.-based Matt Galligan twittered that his local AT&T store had only 55 phones in stock and that he wasn't sure whether he'd be able to get one. And Jacksonville, Fla.-based Judson Collier said he'd checked three AT&T stores, only to find them all out of stock. Murray Williams in Lowell, Ark., twittered that the store would be out of stock before he got to the front of the line.

The AT&T store in New York's Times Square was out of 16GB iPhones by noon. Elsewhere, tensions amounted. CNET's Josh Lowensohn posted to Twitter that a fight broke out at an AT&T store when a group of people tried to cut the line.

Meanwhile, owners of older iPhones who were attempting to upgrade the software were getting error messages instead. The activation servers had affected those, too.

But ask yourself this, gadget fans: do you really need the iPhone today? At worst, the activation process will get more efficient as store employees grow more used to it. At best, you can get one tomorrow or next week. It's OK. You'll survive.

Click here for CNET News' complete iPhone 3G coverage.