The great iPhone hunt of 2007

A survey of Apple and AT&T stores finds they're not all the same when it comes to stocking and reserving the much-hyped gadget.

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
6 min read
Apple CEO Steve Jobs recently gave free advice to a columnist asking how to get an iPhone when they go on sale: head to an AT&T store, Jobs suggested, rather than Apple's own retail outlets.

A CNET News.com survey of 75 Apple and AT&T stores indicates that may be a wise approach.

Not one Apple store contacted offered would-be iPhone buyers the chance to get on a waiting list, but some AT&T stores and retailers did. The catch: not all stores that sell AT&T phones expect to be selling the iPhone on June 29, and some that will expressed concern about receiving sufficient quantities of the highly anticipated device.

An AT&T-owned store in Times Square in midtown Manhattan, for instance, said that about 100 people had been placed on a waiting list. When asked whether being on that list guarantees priority for buying an iPhone, a store employee replied, "It depends how accessible you make yourself. I'm going to call you. If you're here, you'll get it."

One open question is whether AT&T/Cingular franchises and resellers will ever be selling the iPhone. (Because exclusive Cingular agents have signs and decor that looked just like company-owned stores, it hasn't been easy to tell them apart. But as of a few weeks ago, locally owned stores are now called AT&T authorized retailers and are labeled as such in the company's online directory.)

Tips for landing an iPhone

• Log on to Apple's Web-based store on June 29. The phone is set to go on sale at 6 p.m. that day, Jobs announced. Sign up for updates here. But forget trying AT&T's e-commerce site; the company says it won't be selling iPhones online, at least initially.

• Call a few local AT&T stores and see if you can get on their waiting lists or if your local sales representative has any tips about how that particular store is handling requests. Most will tell you it's all first-come, first-served, but practices appear to vary widely.

• Show up early at an Apple store or company-owned AT&T store before they open on June 29. Most stores say they will be keeping normal hours that day, although midnight parties at Apple stores don't appear to be completely ruled out. The big question is how many phones each store will stock.

• Wait until the June 29 mania dies down and hope that AT&T and Apple decide to allow locally owned AT&T franchises and resellers to carry the product as well. More locations should mean more units--and shorter lines.

AT&T spokesman John Kampfe initially denied on Tuesday that any franchises or resellers would receive iPhones. "The iPhone will be available in all AT&T-owned retail stores nationwide, which number about 1,800. Again it will be sold only in AT&T-owned retail stores, Apple retail stores and through Apple's online store," Kampfe said in an e-mail interview.

But in the News.com survey, some franchises have said the opposite: that they expect to supply customers with iPhones starting June 29. Others, however, have said they're not getting the product at all; some say they're unsure whether they'll stock them; and some said that if they did, the phones would likely not arrive until at least July.

A Manhattan AT&T franchise on Third Avenue said on Tuesday that it's also expecting the phone on June 29 but did not have a waiting list. In Miami, an employee at an AT&T franchise on Dixie Highway said she had 16 people on a waiting list for the 15 phones expected in the first shipment and would continue taking names for the next batch of 15 phones. Those are expected to arrive two weeks later.

In a follow-up conversation, AT&T's Kampfe indicated that franchises might be able to start selling phones after June 29. "We haven't disclosed what we're doing beyond the 29th," he said. "That's not to say we are going to make them available, but as of the 29th, it is only going to be in AT&T-owned stores, Apple stores, and Apple online."

Some other tidbits that surfaced in the survey:

• When asked whether it was possible to get on a waiting list or preorder the iPhone, many AT&T store representatives cited an internal company memorandum barring both practices. But AT&T's Kampfe said he could not confirm or comment on the existence of such a policy. "Our policy is that it is going to be sold on the day--no advance sales or anything of that nature," he told CNET News.com in a phone interview.

• In San Francisco, an AT&T franchise store on Chestnut Street said it had assembled a waiting list of sorts, but "maxed out" about two weeks ago and would no longer be adding names to the list. That store said it expected to receive about 30 iPhones, but most likely not until at least a few days after the projected launch date. Five more stores in San Francisco, most of them AT&T-owned, said they weren't taking preorders or starting waiting lists, as did the downtown Apple store. Another franchise on Kearny Street said it wasn't stocking the phone at all.

• Two stores in the Los Angeles area, which appeared from their directory listing to be AT&T-owned, said they were taking down names for an informal waiting list, but they couldn't guarantee that those on the list would actually get their hands on the first crop of phones. (Three other area stores, however, declined such requests at all.)

• Very few employees at AT&T or Apple stores had the faintest idea how many phones their stores will stock, with many of them blaming that lack of information on secrecy from the corporate powers at Apple.

• But some were more optimistic than others about the quantities. A Miami Beach Apple store employee enthusiastically predicted that there would be "enough" for everyone who wanted one, while an Apple store employee in Cambridge, Mass., said she'd heard "good numbers" of iPhones would be available at her location. A Salt Lake City Apple store employee, for his part, couldn't be more specific than "a bunch." Estimates by some AT&T store employees were more conservative, however. Employees at company-owned stores in downtown San Francisco and Tampa, Fla., admitted they were expecting only a "limited" number, at least at first.

• The cube-shaped Apple store on New York's Fifth Avenue may be open for business 24 hours a day, but a representative who answered the phone chuckled (knowingly?) when asked whether that location would begin selling the phones at midnight on June 29. Apple hasn't told the store anything about that, she said.

• At Apple's Salt Lake City outpost, an employee said he had heard buzz about a midnight launch party, but knew only one thing for certain: come June 29, there was sure to be a line going out the door. Almost every customer that walks into the store asks about the iPhone, he said.

• An Omaha, Neb., Apple store employee said he fully expected to see people camping outside before the launch, while a Portland, Ore. employee actually advised doing so: "I recommend pitching a tent," he said, perhaps only half kidding.

CNET News.com's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.