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iPhone 5 sales exhaust initial supply, trip up servers

Early buyers of Apple's latest iPhone once again slammed online stores, and the first batch of iPhone 5 models sold within an hour, pushing delivery times back as long as three weeks.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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  • I've been covering the technology industry for 24 years and was a science writer for five years before that. I've got deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and other dee
Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Stephen Shankland
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Apple's online store in France handled iPhone 5 orders with no trouble, but not all e-commerce sites stood up so gracefully under the load.
Apple's online store in France handled iPhone 5 orders with no trouble, but not all e-commerce sites handled the load so gracefully. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

The iPhone 5 hiccuped onto the market today, taking down several online stores and quickly selling out the first supply of Apple's new smartphone.

Initial stock from Apple for release day delivery sold out in less than an hour. Those looking to purchase the phone just after 1 a.m. PT discovered new orders from Apple's online site had estimated shipping times of "2 weeks" instead of the original "delivers by" September 21 message.

How far back can Apple push it? In the case of the iPhone 4S last year, Apple extended delivery of new orders out to three to four weeks after the launch. Some buyers ended up canceling online orders and waiting in line at retail stores instead.

In the United States, early buyers today found both Apple's and AT&T's online stores down for maintenance. Savvy users discovered that orders could still be placed through Apple's iOS app, where buying options went live immediately after midnight. At the carriers, meanwhile, Verizon's site appeared to be fully functional, unlike Sprint's, which spent its first half-hour at a crawl when trying to view the ordering page.

The U.K. carrier 3 had difficulties fulfilling iPhone 5 demand.
The U.K. carrier 3 had difficulties fulfilling iPhone 5 demand. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

"It's coming. We're excited and readying the store for your orders. Check back soon to place your pre-order," Sprint's store page read.

Sprint's site recovered by about 1:30 a.m. PT., and AT&T's was working by 1:50 a.m. PT.

Apple's online stores in the U.K., Germany, and France responded smoothly to preorder requests. Curiously, Apple's online store in the United States worked smoothly from France for a time but wasn't available from California in CNET's initial attempts to get through.

Actually completing the order can be another matter: When blogger Danny Sullivan tried to place his preorder through the Apple store for a phone on AT&T's network, Apple's site told him, "We have an iPhone for you. We're currently unable to reach the carrier systems to process your order, but will reserve an iPhone for you." It offered a reservation confirmation and promised to e-mail him when he could proceed with his order.

In Germany, servers at Deutsche Telekom's T-Mobile division were sluggish to respond, but a preorder page was available. Trying to place an order, though, was a different matter: the Web page wouldn't load.

"A communication error occurred," the T-Mobile Germany site said. "The Web Server may be down, too busy, or experiencing other problems preventing it from responding to requests. You may wish to try again at a later time."

In the U.K., Orange's online store went offline. T-Mobile UK (the other half of the Everything Everywhere partnership that will have the LTE advantage in the U.K.) offered an iPhone 5 preorder button, but on its online store, the iPhone 5 wasn't initially available. The carrier began offering iPhone 5 preorders not long into the day, though, starting at about 1 a.m. PT (or 9 a.m. local time). Vodafone in the U.K. accepted preorders but its online store was extremely slow. And 3 UK offered preorders but was unable to fulfill them at 2:30 a.m. PT.

The buying frenzy brings a potential problem for Apple: the supply of accessories to support its new Lightning dock and cable connector has been pushed to next month, potentially weeks after buyers get the first devices that uses it. That includes the $29 30-pin-to-Lightning dock adapter, which lets users connect the iPhone 5, iPod Nano, and iPod Touch to the now outdated 30-pin cables found in all previous iPods and iPhones. New orders for the adapter ship in October, while the Lightning-to-USB cable, which also is included with the iPhone 5, currently shows a shipping wait of two to three weeks.

The sixth-generation iPhone, unveiled this week, is thinner, longer, lighter, and comes with a faster processor and faster LTE wireless networking. And it comes with greater sales ambitions: Apple is releasing it for sales in more countries sooner. Some analysts expect that faster opening of sales will mean more revenue for Apple in the fourth quarter of 2012.

But keeping up with demand for the tremendously popular product is tough.

T-Mobile's site in Germany faltered under the crush of iPhone 5 orders.
T-Mobile's site in Germany faltered under the crush of iPhone 5 orders. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Last year's iPhone preorders got off to a shaky start. Apple's own online store experienced intermittent errors shortly after sales began at midnight Pacific, steadying about 45 minutes later. The company's carrier partners experienced more substantial hiccups, with AT&T and Sprint buyers reporting delays of up to two hours while trying to purchase a handset.

This year, many sites eased into the iPhone 5 era. Vodafone Germany initially only offered a sign-up page to provide more information on the phone. It added a preorder page later, but at about 2 a.m. PT, trying to use it produced an error message saying that the Web page couldn't be reached.

In France, SFR, Orange, and Bouygues Telecom initially only showed pages where people could sign up to find out about availability. Later in the day, SFR and Orange started accepting preorders. And by midday local time, the Apple store in France had increased order fulfillment times to a period of two to three weeks.

Likewise, O2 in the U.K. offered information but no preorder page for the iPhone 5.

This is Apple's second time launching on three of the largest carriers in the U.S. at once. For early models of the iPhone, Apple had dealt only with AT&T. Last year the company brought both Verizon and Sprint into the fold with the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S, respectively.

Apple sold more than 4 million iPhone 4S models during its launch weekend last year, nearly twice the 1.7 million iPhone 4 models sold in the same period in 2010. In 2009, Apple sold about 1 million iPhone 3GS models.

Part of the reason for the larger numbers last year was not just the growth of the smartphone market, but also that Apple was offering it on more carriers, and in more countries. The 4S was available in seven countries initially, and the iPhone 5 is available in those same seven, plus two more locales -- Hong Kong and Singapore.

Updated at 1 a.m. PT with details on orders through Apple's store in the U.S. Updated at 1:47 a.m. PT with the exhaustion of the initial supply and Sprint's site recovery. Updated at 2:37 a.m. PT with further details from European carrier sales. Updated at 4:58 a.m. PT as French carriers began accepting preorders.

The iPhone means a lot to AT&T: the carrier devoted its entire home page to a countdown timer for the start of iPhone 5 preorders.
The iPhone means a lot to AT&T: the carrier devoted its entire home page to a countdown timer for the start of iPhone 5 preorders. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET