Image: iPhone buyer
Kin Cheung  /  AP
The first buyer in Hong Kong, Ho Kak-yin, holds his new iPhone during the first day of the release July 11. In the United States, purchasers of the second-generation iPhone had problems activating the phones through Apple's online iTunes Store, because network connections were jammed.
updated 7/11/2008 5:03:57 PM ET 2008-07-11T21:03:57

iPhone 3G launch day was supposed to be about long lines for the popular devices, not about problems getting them activated.

But across the country, new 3G iPhones failed to activate after purchase, and older iPhones were rendered useless by those who tried to update the phone's software via Apple's online iTunes Store, which had problems carrying out the update.

For me, four hours in line for the new iPhone meant I got one, but it couldn't be activated in the store, which Apple and AT&T had previously said was the only place it could be activated.

“Take it home and it will take 15 seconds to activate once you connect to iTunes 7.7,” said the East Coast AT&T Wireless store rep, who was staying incredibly calm, despite the fact that customer after customer was being faced with the same problem: not being able to access Apple's online iTunes Store from the AT&T store for activation, because the network was jammed.

I rushed home trying to beat the clock after hearing others talking about the fact it was nearing 8 a.m. Pacific Time, which meant Apple and AT&T stores in the West — particularly California, reps said — would be opening and that would make the Internet access problem even worse. None of this was supposed to have happened. When the original iPhone went on sale last June, customers were allowed to activate the phones by going online at home. But not this time.

This time, Apple and AT&T made it quite clear in advance that activation could only happen in an Apple or AT&T store. In my case, that rule went out the window about an hour after the store’s 8 a.m. opening, as connections slowed not to a crawl, but to a halt.

The store I was at had four terminals, four customer reps and four customers at a time. It took between 45 minutes and an hour to get each customer activated. By the time I got into the store, at 10:30 ET, the reps were still offering to try to activate the phones, but strongly encouraging customers take them home and do the deed there.

At home, I powered up the Mac, and tried to activate the iPhone. First, iTunes wanted to recognize the phone as a camera. I double-checked my version of iTunes — it was 7.6.2 (9). I tried to update it to the needed 7.7, and for the first time ever, got this message repeatedly: “An error occurred while checking for updates ...A networking error has occurred. Make sure you can connect to the Internet, then try again."

I kept trying, but by now it was 8:30 a.m. PT. I can tell I am in for a long day. As I write this, I’m still trying and re-trying to connect to update iTunes and get to the iTunes Store.

(Update: As of 1:30 p.m. PT, I'm activated. Once I was able to download iTunes 7.7, got through to the iTunes Store, the activation process took only a few minutes.)

Advance reconnaissance
I thought I had done as much reconnaissance in advance as I could. I didn’t have a team of people to help me, like some others did, coordinating how to go about getting the new iPhone 3G. I’d gone to AT&T Wireless a few days in advance to get a credit check done to help expedite the process Friday, as the company had advised on its Web site. I scoped out the store and the parking, and asked the sales reps for what time would be best to show up on Friday, and they suggested 6 a.m.

In New York, iPhone fans were already in line days ahead of time. I felt somewhat grateful for living in a somewhat sleepier part of the country, the Southeast, just north of Jeff Foxworthy-ville. I showed up at 6:30 this morning outside a mall that has an AT&T corporate store.

Fourteen people were ahead of me, outside the glass doors of the mall, which would open at 7:55 a.m. for the AT&T store only. There is one Apple store in our area, but I didn’t want to get near it, fearing the biggest crowds would be there. Being No. 15 in line made me feel confident and less cranky about rising at 5 a.m. to get there.

A smiling and courteous AT&T rep came outside at about 7, and started going through the line to get paperwork going for each person. Everyone was stunned — even the very first in line — when after customer No. 20, the AT&T rep said there were no more phones.

What??? How could that be? Only 20 phones? The line hadn’t grown much beyond 30 at that point, but it was upsetting. Lord knows, people here are polite, to the point of fingernail-grating on a blackboard. In New York, there would have been a riot. But in my group, folks mostly shook their heads and quietly walked to their cars, trying to figure out how to make up for lost time and what store to go to that might have better odds. “I heard the Chesapeake store has 60 phones,” one person called out.

“Are y’all waitin’ in line for the new ah-Pod?” asked one passer-by, who obviously and blissfully had no idea of what was going on.

A quick decision
Then there was more upsetting news: The store had only 10 iPhones that are the 16-gigabyte models, for $299, and 10 of the 8-gigabyte models, for $199. I wanted the 16-gigabyte model. But No. 14, the person ahead me, got the last one.

When the AT&T rep got to me, I told her how dismayed I was. She said that if I still wanted to get the 8-gig model, I could and then bring it back within 30 days and swap it out for the 16-gig iPhone — at a restocking fee of 10 percent.

I had to make a snap decision, because even though the “privileged” 20 were waiting, so were some others who decided to get in line and try anyway. I said I’d take it.

But now, I have to take this, too, along with thousands and thousands of others around the country, this frustration of not being able to get to the technology, the iTunes Store on the Internet, to hook up and activate the world’s coolest technology.

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