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FAQ: iPhone 3G launch day is Friday

Thinking about picking up an iPhone 3G the day Apple and AT&T start selling them? You might want to consider a few things before searching for a tent and camping chair.

Will this year's iPhone 3G launch resemble last year's frenzy?
Erica Ogg/CNET

You've got to wonder whether Apple and AT&T are excited or worried about a repeat of last year's iPhone mania.

Even though a few people have already started lining up outside Apple's Fifth Avenue store in New York, the buzz surrounding Friday's launch of the iPhone 3G has been far less prevalent on our shores this year than last year, when I thought I was going to lose my mind writing about Apple's first mobile phone.

That makes some sense, since, in many ways, the iPhone is old news. But a new activation process could mean that Apple and AT&T will have to deal with a different kind of buzz: the grumbling of potential iPhone customers in long, slow-moving lines.

The new model is expected to appeal to a wider audience than the first iPhone did because of the lower barrier to entry presented by the $199 price tag and the faster networking connection that will suck in those of us who couldn't imagine trying to surf the Web on an EDGE chip.

Are new iPhone owners-to-be the types of people who enjoy being part of an Apple product launch, or would they rather just pick up the new phone on their lunch break and be done with it? Poll

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Will you buy an iPhone 3G?

Yes, I'll be one of the first in line.
Yes, but I'm going to avoid the launch rush.
No, I'm not interested.

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Here's what you need to know if you're thinking about picking up an iPhone 3G this weekend.

When and where does the iPhone 3G go on sale?

In the United States, you'll be able to buy the iPhone 3G starting at 8 a.m. local time on Friday, July 11, at your local Apple or AT&T retail store. If you're outside the States, it depends; some countries, such as the United Kingdom, are launching on the 11th but at slightly different times, while others are waiting a week or two.

Is there going to be a long line like last year?

Probably. The lines might not stretch as long as they did last year, but lines for Apple products and shows aren't so much about the products or events themselves; many times, people view the line-waiting experience as a community gathering of like-minded souls who want to be a part of something Apple-related.

I'm sure that there are people who will want to be able to say they were first to buy both the original iPhone and the second-generation model, just as there are people ruing the fact that they missed out on all the fun of the original "iPhone Day."

At least a few people will camp out for the chance to buy the iPhone 3G on day 1. Caroline McCarthy/CNET

It looks like there 's going an additional twist this year, at least in New York. Over the holiday weekend, a publicity-minded group of environmental activists decided to use the iPhone launch to promote their own causes. It's an election year, too; will we see McCain and Obama activists promoting their candidate in front of a captive audience? Who knows.

No matter who's in the crowd, the launch experience this time around is going to be very different, however, because Apple and AT&T are requiring iPhone buyers to activate their iPhones in the store--and because of the morning start time.

Why are the companies requiring in-store activation? That's not what my friend/sister/cousin/third baseman had to do last year when she bought an iPhone.

Apple and AT&T spoiled iPhone customers last year with the at-home activation policy that allowed them to rush into the stores, buy the iPhone, and activate it later in the comfort of their homes: a few glitches notwithstanding. In-store activation is a standard operation for most new phones, however, and it's going to be the way the iPhone 3G is released to the world.

There is one main reason for this: AT&T wants to cut down on the number of iPhones that are bought for the sole purpose of unlocking them and reselling them overseas, so it's going to make sure that people commit to a two-year contract with early-termination fees before they take the phone home.

In addition, Apple appears to have taken the extra step of "bricking" all iPhone 3Gs before they arrive at retail stores, so the phones have to be both "unbricked," or essentially turned on, as well as activated to run on AT&T's network.

That sounds like it's going to take a while.

It probably will. Last year, the at-home activation scheme allowed Apple to admit iPhone shoppers into its stores 25 at a time, and it meant that store employees just had to hand out iPhones and swipe credit cards. You could have walked into the downtown San Francisco Apple store last year an hour after the iPhone went on sale at 6 p.m. and picked up a unit without having to wait in line for a few days.

Apple employees get ready to welcome the first iPhone shoppers inside the downtown San Francisco store last year. Erica Ogg/CNET

This time, store employees will have to sign up new customers for AT&T's service, do a credit check, go over the paperwork for the new two-year contract, explain the early-termination fees, and go through the physical process of both unbricking and activating the iPhone 3G.

That could take anywhere from 5 minutes to 20 minutes per customer, depending on the nature of the transaction; current AT&T customers will probably find it faster than new customers will. The companies have likely given this some thought, and will no doubt put their employees through some intense training in the days ahead of the launch. But, as they say, they play the games for a reason.

I still want one, anyway. How much is this going to cost me?

It depends. If you bought an original iPhone, or if you're a brand-new AT&T customer, the iPhone 3G will cost you $199 for the 8GB model or $299 for the 16GB model--far cheaper than the opening price last year. If you're a current AT&T customer but you don't have an iPhone, the price you pay depends on whether you are eligible to purchase another subsidized phone.

Generally speaking, the longer you've been with AT&T using your current phone, the more likely you are to be eligible for the upgrade price, but check with your local representative to be sure. If you're not eligible for the upgrade price, you'll pay $399 for the 8GB model and $499 for the 16GB model.

This time around, you'll also have the option of buying an iPhone without having to commit to two years of service from AT&T. That option is pricey, however: $599 for the 8GB model, or $699 for the 16GB model.

The Unofficial Apple Weblog notes that at those prices, you could buy the regular model for $199, fork over the activation fees, pay for one month of service, cancel that service, and fork over the early-termination fees and still save money as compared to buying the $599 model. You'd still have to unlock your iPhone 3G in order to make it useful at all, however, and whether that will be as easy to do with this model as it was with the original remains to be seen.

No, I meant, how much is it going to cost me over the long run?

You've got several options for monthly plans, but in short, it's going to cost more than the original iPhone did on a monthly basis. The combination voice-and-data plans are running at least $10 more a month than the original plans, and perhaps more, depending on your addiction to text messaging.

How many iPhone 3Gs will sell in the first weekend? Last year, Apple sold 270,000 in just two days. Apple

So if I want an iPhone 3G, will I have to line up to ensure that I get one this month?

Last year, there was enough supply to make it most of the way through the first weekend, before the iPhone became really hard to find. This year, expect something similar. Apple hasn't shipped an original iPhone since the middle of May, giving itself plenty of time to start building up the supply of iPhone 3Gs.

With no online-ordering option available--at least in the U.S.--your only option will be to visit an Apple or AT&T store, if you want an iPhone 3G. What will those stores look like on Friday morning? This is hard to predict for stores in urban areas like New York and San Francisco.

If everybody freaks out about the in-store activation process and decides to wait a few weeks, it could be really easy to get an iPhone 3G on Friday. If everybody thinks that the concerns about the lines are overblown and heads to a store on Friday, the activation process could ensure that you're in for quite a wait. Those of you in smaller cities and towns probably won't have the same issue, but your local stores probably won't get as many iPhones as the big guys, either.

Don't be surprised to see long lines outside Apple and AT&T stores during the day on Friday. The interesting question this time around is whether iPhone 3G early adopters can waltz into the stores with the same ease as last year, or whether "iPhone Day: The Sequel" resembles the wait for "It's A Small World" at Disneyland.