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A Guide to iPhone Preordering: Take an Anxiolytic First

So last night I preordered my first iPhone. Yes, despite owning two previous models — the 3GS and the original flavor — each time I’ve just walked into an Apple store and bought it. Part of the reason for this is the fact that preorders weren’t even taken on iPhones until the iPhone 4 was released in 2010. Even so, there’s something really fulfilling about just buying something you’ve saved up for from a brick-and-mortar store, holding it in your hands and getting to play with it as soon as you lay out the cash. (Or gift card, as was the case in 2008 when Apple refused to take my actual Benjamins.)

Anyway, this year I wanted the new iPhone on release day, and I didn’t want to be one of those noinks sleeping in a tent outside the local mega-mall. So when the news got around the preorders would start being taken at 12:01 a.m. Pacific Time on Friday the 7th, I resolved to stay up and be one of the first to get my order in. The iPhone 4 sold out pretty quick last year, so if you want to be a part of the first batch, you need to act within the first few hours.

Since midnight Pacific is 2 a.m. Central, and I was feeling pretty sleepy by 7 o’clock last evening, I figured I’d just go to bed and catch some winks before the actual release time. I set my 3GS alarm to wake me up with an obnoxious duck sound and read Lovecraft on the phone’s tiny screen until I could stand it no more.

When the incessant quacking first launched me out of my slumber at 2 a.m., I immediately checked the Apple Store iOS app. Last year it was reported that this was a great way to avoid the server crashes and the hassles that traditional web store visitors endured; plus, it would allow me to order the phone from the comfort of my own bed. But the “We’ll be back soon” post-it note graphic was still being displayed on the Apple store, meaning preorders weren’t open yet. I hit the snooze on the alarm.

I think I woke up, checked, and snoozed again for the next hour before I finally got something other than the “We’ll be back soon” message, but by then, it was 3:15 a.m. Central and the store was erroring out. A crush of people were on it already, it seemed. All right, let’s saddle up and finish this like a man. I shuffled off to the study and fired up the computer, headed over to the Apple store in my browser and tried to order up an iPhone 4S.

It wasn’t happening. The store kept timing out — wait for it — at the step where Apple interfaces with AT&T to check your upgrade eligibility. Oh, what a surprise! AT&T’s reduced the whole thing to a shambles again. This went on for some time without any success. Simultaneously I was refreshing the MacRumors Forums in another browser tab, checking to see what experiences others were having. Several users recommended preordering the phone directly from AT&T’s website. That seemed counter-intuitive, but I decided to give it a try.

What’s this? AT&T’s site is working? It was surreal, actually, because AT&T’s own site exhibited absolutely no symptoms of any crushing load being brought to bear. It was like it was 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning and I was browsing for a Jitterbug phone for grandma. I started to go through the preorder process, my guard up at all times, knowing that AT&T would be much more likely than Apple to try and exploit the smallest mistake I might make. I certainly wasn’t wrong about that, as I would come to find out.

For a start, I’m one of the AT&T’s original unlimited data plan holders. They’ve done away with that plan now, forcing new subscribers to choose either a 200 MB or 2 GB monthly data allotment. I was supposed to be grandfathered in, but the first thing the AT&T website informed me of was the fact that my unlimited data plan and my $5 texting plan (giving me 200 texts a month — also no longer available) were “incompatible” with the iPhone 4S and would be removed. Seriously?

Fortunately, I knew not to panic, because during my browsing of the MacRumors Forums I noted tons of frantic, scatterbrained topics being posted by countless sleep-deprived schoolchildren (hey, that’s how they sounded) about how they were losing their unlimited data plan and how AT&T was a bunch of filthy scumbags. More importantly, each one of these posts had garnered a reply to the effect of, “Just go to the next step in the process, and it’ll let you add a new “Unlimited data for iPhone 4S plan.” Oh. Okay. So I did, and there it was. Whew. Unlimited data still intact.

My next concern was the texting plan. AT&T apparently didn’t care much for Apple’s idea to introduce, in iOS version 5, a system called “iMessage” because it essentially obviates the need for traditional SMS, at least when you’re chatting with another iOS 5 device user. In those circumstances, your Apple device will automatically detect that you’re sending a message to someone with an iMessage client, and it will send that over Apple’s iMessage network as regular data, rather than as a super-overpriced SMS. Well, AT&T has a bigger profit margin on their ludicrous SMS rates than just about any other aspect of their service, so they promptly responded by doing away with every texting plan except for the $20 unlimited plan. That includes the nifty little $5 plan I’ve been using since 2008 that’s given me 200 texts a month, the perfect allotment for what I use. Trust me, I’m not in any hurry to pay $20 a month to send about a hundred texts. Can you say “fuck that”?

But I was concerned at this point because AT&T had informed me (via cryptic warning message) that my $5 text plan was incompatible, yet it never offered me an alternative. What’s even more screwed up about this is, I read on the forums that depending on which store you were preordering at, and even which link you clicked on to start the preordering process, you might get different information. One user (a former employee of 3D Realms from right here in the DFW area, coincidentally enough) noted that if you first logged into your AT&T account and hit the “Personalized Upgrade” link instead of clicking on the flashy iPhone 4S banners elsewhere, you would be given two text plan choices while preordering: “None” or “Unlimited ($20)”.

Here’s the big gotcha. “None” actually meant keep your existing text plan! Meaning that if you wanted to keep your $5 plan, for instance, that was the option you’d need to pick. Maybe it’s just me, but I would have assumed that it meant “none”. As in, don’t give me a texting plan and let me pay 20 cents per text. But no.

In a sense, I would have preferred it if that option was presented to me, because I would have chosen “none” whether I was aware of its true meaning or not. Instead, though, because I preordered my phone by clicking on the “Preorder Now” button on AT&T’s homepage, I wasn’t given a texting plan choice. At all.

Fortunately, based on some reports from other users throughout the day, and finally a conversation with an AT&T chat support representative, I discovered that I was, in actuality, getting to keep my $5 texting plan. It’s just that this information isn’t shown anywhere at all, not on my order status screen nor my confirmation email.

And speaking of that confirmation email, it took approximately 12 hours for AT&T to deliver it to my inbox!

In the end, though, it looks like I have successfully preordered a 32 GB black iPhone 4S. It should also be arriving no later than Friday the 14th, the phone’s official release date — and, if I get lucky, I might even get it a day or two early as some users did last year during the iPhone 4 launch. Whatever happens, the fact that I don’t have to go shove my way through crowds at an Apple store, or wait two or three weeks for the backorders to catch up, is worth all the hassle.

Things change so rapidly in the technology industry (especially when it comes to mobile phones) that there’s no telling whether this guide will be of any service to anyone in the future, but I burned enough hours on the process that I’ve decided to write it anyway.

And now, it’s time to get out of here and head home for the day. Did you know it’s Columbus Day weekend? Neither did I. You’d be forgiven for not realizing it, given that it won’t change your life in any recognizable way whatsoever. But there must be a lot of government workers in my office building, because judging by the contents of the parking lot, the place is running on a skeleton crew today.

Oh — I’m installing an infant travel system in our Mazda this weekend! Should be interesting to say the least. I suppose I’ll blog about that too.

2 thoughts to “A Guide to iPhone Preordering: Take an Anxiolytic First”

  1. I am continually amazed at the level of complication everything in the modern world requires. You have to be a genius to survive -so thank goodness you are 😉

    Can’t wait to hear how the car seat installation goes!

  2. Yeah, you really have to be careful with wireless carriers in particular since it is almost a guarantee that whatever plan/features you had before are better or more reasonably priced than what’s out there now, at least since the rise of the smartphone era when they’ve all seemingly started trying to eliminate value at the low end and want to lock you into high-minimum services. Many times, billing systems at these carriers are designed to completely lock customer service reps out of putting discontinued plans back on your account, even if their removal was a mistake.

    To think that the only option I have on AT&T if I want to send about a hundred texts a month — practically nothing — is to pay $20 for an unlimited amount! On Verizon, it’s data: You’re stuck paying $30 a month minimum for 2 GB worth, even someone like Nantana who uses about 150 MB per month. Rumor has it that Verizon will also offer a cheaper data plan–that gives you 100 MB a month. Really? That’s like the equivalent of surfing to 30 websites these days. They deliberately set the break points for these plans at levels that they know the majority of users will exceed, them clothe themselves in the blanket of altruism like they’re doing us a favor.

    This kind of game is one where “the only winning move is not to play”, most of the time, but the carriers have guessed (rightfully so) that we’re all too attached to our mobile devices to resist. Myself included!

    And so, then, the next best weapons become education and vigilance. Hopefully this post provides the former and inspires the latter.

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