Apple and AT&T: for better or worse

iphoneLet’s start with a confession: my current phone belongs in a museum. The sheer sight of it has been eliciting laughs from my friends for years, and I have an inkling they’ve been laughing at me, not with me. So I wasn’t entirely surprised when they simultaneously took pity and the bull by the horns last week. My birthday was the long awaited excuse they needed to help me ditch the offending piece of hardware, and finally upgrade. And what better handset than an iPhone 3G to migrate to? You know the drill: after the initial denial phase, I reluctantly accepted that I had a phone problem, and eventually agreed that the solution was to enter the new millennium and become the proud owner of one of the shiny, trendy marvels. Resistance, after all, is futile: however conflicted I am about being manipulated into it by marketing geniuses, I do lust after the gadget like any geek out there. So I mourned the imminent retirement of my trusty Sony Ericsson T616 for an appropriate few more days, and learned to look at it as inadequate, in spite of its having survived more than its share of salt water immersions, falls, and overall careless treatment.

After calling in to check on availability, I finally made my way to the nearest Apple store, credit card and driver license in hand, ready for the fateful transaction. Why is it, then, that the same old Sony Ericsson phone, albeit newly undesirable, is still in shameful constant use?

Before I get started, let’s give credit where it’s due. I came across two posts this morning that prompted me to write: first, today’s New York Times ran a story on Comcast paying attention to customers griping on their blogs about the notoriously bad service they receive from the company. I hope someone at Apple or AT&T finds my rant, and improves the experience of purchasing a phone the next time around! I hear the initial launch, last year, went much better. Second, I read Ben’s post, where he set the stage nicely yesterday with an account of his own trip to the Apple store. He scored one of the prized devices, at least, whereas I didn’t. Here’s what went down.

I had a frustratingly similar experience to his attempting, and ultimately failing, to purchase the iPhone 3G on Tuesday, the 22nd of July. That’s well past the July 11th launch date, and the commotion, understandable on that day, isn’t as easily explained away two weeks later.

The fun began by waiting in line for an hour at the Palo Alto Apple store. The line was deceivingly short, but moved extremely slowly. When I eventually got to the front and entered the store with a sigh of relief, I learned from the employee helping me that the ten of them assigned to selling and activating iPhones at the time had managed to complete all of ten activations in that same hour! In fairness, having read as much coverage about the launch as the next guy, I knew to expect a modest pace. What I didn’t expect was that I’d go home empty ended.

The purchase experience culminated in failure when, as the Apple employee was getting errors from her PDA (ironically, a Windows Mobile Symbol device) setting me up, I ended up having to call the dreaded 611 (AT&T’s customer service) on my own cell phone. I initially tried to piece together from the AT&T agent what was causing the errors, but quickly handed the phone over to the Apple employee, hoping their shared expertise would get us all over the hurdle. She proceeded to spend another 30 fruitless minutes with the AT&T rep at the other end of the line, to no avail.

What broke down? I had checked the online eligibility tool on AT&T’s web site, so walked in confidently: I was the perfect candidate for a heavily subsidized handset. Or so I thought. It turns out I am what they call a Blue customer (or is it Orange?) and not an Orange one (or is it Blue?). Ah, fatal mistake. What on Earth does that mean, you might ask? To me, nothing: it was the first time I heard of the color scheme. But to Apple and AT&T, it seemed like a deal breaker. It appears that the cryptic codename designates me as someone who’s been silly enough to stick with the same carrier, through repeated acquisitions and mergers, for way too long.

If you think loyalty is something to be rewarded, think again: I was told my plan was “no longer supported since 2005”, in spite of its working perfectly well, to this day, for both voice and data, and costing me a hefty sum every month that AT&T seems glad to charge. No problem, just upgrade me, right? Wrong. Neither Apple nor AT&T was able to do so and activate the iPhone. I tried to plea, reverse-engineer the quirks of that black-box of a system, and bend the rules to get to the finish line: no luck.

The only option offered was to drive to an AT&T store, start again from scratch, and buy the phone there, assuming AT&T even had the phone in stock. Needless to say, the prospect of waiting another hour in line anywhere killed any haste I had about impulse-acquiring the mobile phone. I have recharged the old one (it goes for days on one charge!) and am now prepared to wait patiently for inventories to build up at the AT&T store near my place. The revolution will hit me when it hits me.

I certainly blame myself for having foolishly broken my rule of never waiting in line for a gadget and wasted the time! Neither Apple nor AT&T seemed to think any of this was their responsibility, and each politely pointed their finger at the other. I think, though, that their partnership works like a marriage: together for better or worse. Especially after a couple of weeks, they should have ironed these kinds of kinks out, and I am not inclined to cut any more slack to one party than the other when they leave a presumably sizable chunk of their customers (the blue ones? the orange ones?) stranded.


  1. oh, wow. I’m also on AT&T blue (from back when they were at&t before cingular) and was worried about how they’d handle this transition. they actually said you had to do it at an at&t store? ridiculous.

  2. I feel your grief. No one should have to wait that long for nothing; and without even a sincere apology for the inconvenience. Cellular phone companies nowadays seem to focus less on customer service and more on making a quick buck… oh wait, that’s been going on for years.

    Recently, I lost my cell phone and being a loyal T-mobile customer for 7 years, I thought that customer service would gladly give me a break and expedite my request for a replacement. I couldn’t have been more wrong! I had two options… buy a new phone for full price (a prehistoric one costs no less than $150 by the way), or extend my contract and buy one at a slightly discounted price.

    Since I just renewed my contract and had another year on it, I opted for the latter and shelled out more cash than I bargained for. Oh and by the way, the service rep conveniently forgot to tell me that I could have gotten a better discount through online transaction rather than having a premium charged for customer service interaction! Wow… there are premiums for just speaking to another human being now. Go figure…

    Best of luck with the iPhone! I am waiting for the day when it is carried by all the other networks, and when the price is much more reasonable.

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