iPhone 6 presales begin -- with US Apple Store caught napping

The launch of the new iPhone 6 models is supposed to be Apple's biggest. But the company's online store wasn't up to the task at the start.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
7 min read

Preorders for the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus didn't start at midnight PT on the Apple Store, as the company had planned. Screenshot by Shara Tibken/CNET

Apple's online store came back online early Friday, but it was more than two hours after presales were slated to start for the company's new iPhone 6 devices.

The Cupertino, Calif., company was ready to start accepting advance orders for its two new phones -- the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6 Plus -- at midnight PT heading into Friday. But many sites didn't open for preorders at the planned time, including the Apple Store.

See also: Apple iPhone 6 preorders start at midnight but problems plague Apple Store, other sites

Preorders through Verizon Wireless and AT&T largely started without a hitch at midnight, though some customers on Twitter have since complained about issues. Those problems were nothing compared to the issues experienced by Sprint and T-Mobile customers. The Sprint and T-Mobile sites were still down for many users nearly two hours after presales were slated to start. Access to Sprint's site faded in and out in the early morning hours of Friday, while the T-Mobile site displayed a form to register for a reminder for when the preorders began.

Some people joked on Twitter that they "might as well wait for the iPhone 6S now." Apple has issued S models as followups to the iPhone 4 and iPhone 5, as well as the 3G. Historically, the S version adds new features -- such as the Siri digital voice assistant in the 4S and the TouchID fingerprint sensor in the 5S -- but don't change the fundamental hardware design.

Apple on Friday didn't comment about the store outage but said iPhone 6 preorders set a record overnight. The demand presumably was so high, Apple's online store and various carriers couldn't keep up. As of midday Friday, Apple's website said the iPhone 6 Plus would be available to ship in three to four weeks, while the iPhone 6 would be available in 7 to 10 business days.

"Response to iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus has been incredible," Apple said in a statement.

Check out: For iPhone 6, big phone equals big wait

AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel said Friday morning that preorders so far have been better than in the last two years. He added that preorders are "always a dynamic process," including shipping times. Verizon declined to provide color on preorders aside from pointing out the ship dates -- currently ranging from Sept. 19 to Oct. 7 for the iPhone 6 and Oct. 14 to 28 for the iPhone 6 Plus.

Sprint's site provided a "shipping alert," saying some devices may be delayed. The company said "we'll do our best" to get the iPhone 6 to preorder customers bySept. 19, when the iPhone 6 officially goes on sale, but noted that the 64 gigabyte and 128GB models of the iPhone 6 Plus will take up to three weeks to reach customers, and the 16GB version won't ship for four to six weeks.

Sprint said in a statement that it is "very pleased with the interest" in the new phones. "While we do not share pre-order numbers, the response has been strong, and [we] continue to update and monitor all of our sales channels as we work to meet the high volume of traffic," the company added.

And T-Mobile, which had ship times similar to to those at Sprint, apologized to customers for any inconvenience and said orders have been processing. "We had incredible demand for Apple devices this morning and some customers may have experienced intermittent technical issues with our iPhone pre-order site."

The Apple Store issues are an embarrassment for Apple, which has boasted the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus launch will be its biggest ever. It's also a black eye for Angela Ahrendts, the former Burberry CEO who joined Apple CEO Tim Cook's team as head of online and physical store retail in May. She has been tasked with helping revitalize Apple's retail operations, which have experienced slowing growth. Angering customers during the iPhone 6 launch isn't quite the way to start.

The Apple iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus have arrived (pictures)

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The store outage on Friday also is the second significant technical difficulty that Apple -- the biggest tech company in the country -- has experienced this week. During the splashy event Tuesday to unveil its newest devices, the live stream worked only intermittently, and many users ended up hearing dubbed Mandarin instead of English, when they had a picture at all.

The 4.7-inch iPhone 6 goes on sale Sept. 19 in 115 countries, starting at $199 for a version with 16GB of storage space. The 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus starts at $299 for its 16GB version -- $100 more. In the UK, an unlocked iPhone 6 will start at £539, and the iPhone 6 Plus will start at £619.

From now until the launch date, consumers can place preorders through Apple's online store and at carriers such as Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and US Cellular. Buyers also can make preorders at physical Apple Retail Stores beginning at 8 a.m. local time on Friday. And several retailers also will get in on the act Friday in their physical stores, including Best Buy, RadioShack, Sam's Club, Target, and Walmart. Best Buy also will allow customers to make preorders online for only the Sprint version of the iPhone 6.

The iPhone 6 has the potential to be the biggest launch in Apple's 38-year history. Apple reportedly has asked manufacturing partners to produce about 70 million to 80 million units of its larger-screen iPhones by Dec. 30, which is about 30 percent to 40 percent more iPhones than it ordered for its initial run of last year's iPhone 5S and 5C .

Ordering more devices to be available could buffer Apple against the supply shortages it has seen with past launches. The company also sets aside allotments for the different days of the preorder process. The iPhone 5, released in the fall of 2012, sold out of its initial supply of preorders in less than an hour. Apple didn't offer preorders with last year's high-end iPhone 5S because of supply constraints, but it did put its cheaper, plastic-encased iPhone 5C up for preorder. The iPhone 5C availability was much better due to lower demand for the device.

As of 2 a.m. PT, the two biggest US carriers -- Verizon and AT&T -- still had all versions of the iPhone 6 available for preorder, though the iPhone 6 Plus had shipping delays of two to four weeks. By 6 a.m., ship times for most devices were pushed out by one week or more.

The iPhone is Apple's most important gadget and its biggest moneymaker, accounting for more than half of sales and about 70 percent of profit, according to analysts. Millions of customers continue to scoop up its older devices, but Apple has been facing threats from bigger screen devices introduced by rivals such as Samsung and HTC. Introducing larger screens with the 4.7-inch iPhone 6 and the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus will help it please current customers and possibly tempt some buyers away from Google's Android operating system.

The new iPhones, unveiled Tuesday, are a big jump over the 4-inch screen found in last year's iPhone 5S. In addition to being slimmer and lighter, both models also include a 64-bit A8 processor with improved graphics, an improved 8-megapixel rear camera, improved battery life, and an NFC chip that allows you to use the phone to make payments.

"Yes, they're bigger; they're a lot bigger," Apple's marketing chief, Phil Schiller, said during the event. "They are the best we know how to make and I think the best anyone has ever seen."

Apple's long history of shipping delays

Apple's new devices tend to sell out quickly.

The iPhone 5 from 2012 -- available for preorder on Sept. 14 of that year and in stores Sept. 24 -- sold out of launch-day stock at a then record pace. About an hour after preorders started, Apple's online store changed the shipment timing from one week -- coinciding with the official launch date -- to as long as three weeks.

Apple received over two million pre-orders for the iPhone 5 within 24 hours, and first weekend sales totaled more than 5 million. The device was one of Apple's most anticipated as it added 4G LTE technology and bumped the screen size to 4 inches from 3.5 in the earlier iPhones.

By comparison, it took about 22 hours for the iPhone 4S preorders to sell out online after it went on sale Oct. 14, 2011, and about 20 hours for the iPhone 4, released June 24, 2010, to go out of stock.

Last year, meanwhile, marked the first time Apple released two phones at the same time, the pricey 5S with the TouchID fingerprint sensor, and the colorful and cheaper iPhone 5C. Apple didn't make the iPhone 5S available for preorder because of supply issues, but it did allow customers to reserve the 5C on Sept. 13.

However, Apple didn't release preorder figures for the 5C as it had done for every iPhone since 2009's introduction of the iPhone 3GS. That was likely because the 5C's initial uptake wasn't very strong, as Apple CEO Tim Cook later acknowledged during an earnings report in January.

The 5C also didn't sell out during preorders, with the device still available in many places after preorders first started. But less than two days after the Sept. 20 launch, it already was tough to find an iPhone 5S. Many customers waited as long as a month for the new device. Overall, Apple sold 9 million units of the iPhone 5S and 5C models in the first weekend after they hit stores.

Updated at 12:30 and 1:30 p.m. PT with comments from carriers and Apple.

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