Examining your iPhone shopping options

So you want to get an iPhone? Get in line. Seriously: stop reading this and get in line right now .

Apple’s mobile phone is shaping up to be the largest launch of a consumer electronics product in history, and if we’ve learned anything from the release of Nintendo’s Wii and Sony’s PlayStation 3, that means lines . Apple itself has stated that iPhones will be available on a first come, first serve basis, so the earlier you can show up, the better your chances will probably be.

“We might not see lines everywhere,” says Michael Gartenberg, JupiterResearch vice president and research director, “but it would appear they’re already forming in some places.”

Unlike the Wii and PlayStation 3, which Gartenberg notes mainly appealed to hardcore gamers, the iPhone is attracting a much broader demographic. “These are regular people, average consumers taking a day off work,” Gartenberg said. That may very well translate into lines that are as large, if not larger, than those for game consoles.

It’s unknown how many phones Apple will have available at launch—estimates range from the thousands to the millions. What we do know is that there are a very limited number of approved distribution venues for the iPhone: namely Apple Stores, company-owned AT&T stores, and online via Apple’s Web site. That’s it: no AT&T resellers, no Apple authorized resellers, not even AT&T’s Web site. And Apple confirmed today that there will be limits placed on how many iPhones each customer can walk away with— the Apple Store will allow you to buy two iPhones per person. We’re told AT&T stores will allow customers to buy just one.

As for timing, we know that 6 p.m. local time is the very moment when iPhones will go on sale, so if you really want to be the very first to have one, you’ll have to head as far east as possible. Apple Stores will shutter at 2 p.m. Friday in preparation for the 6 p.m. grand re-opening, while AT&T stores will close at 4:30 p.m. to take delivery of the phones and get ready for the 6 p.m. launch.

So, if none that makes you lose your nerve and you still find yourself determined to snag an iPhone, what are your options?

Head to an Apple Store

Pros: The iPhone is, above all, an Apple product, so it makes sense that an Apple Store would be the place to be on launch day. The stores, which will be open until midnight on Friday, will probably have the highest quantities of handsets available, so you should have a good chance at finding one. Furthermore, Apple has been developing an excellent streamlined checkout system in the last few years, including letting roaming store employees ring up your credit card on handheld point-of-sale devices. And they’re likely to know more about the iPhone’s features and specifications than AT&T employees.

Cons: If you think you’ll be the only one with this idea, think again. The vast majority of iPhone hunters will probably head for the nearest Apple Store, so unless you live out in the middle of nowhere (in which case, you likely don’t even have an Apple Store nearby), the crowds will probably be insane. In fact, people have already begun to camp out at some places, like the flagship 5th Avenue store in New York, though our informal polls suggested prospective customers were more likely to try and show up on Friday morning or afternoon.

Resources: If you are considering turning the iPhone launch into an overnight affair, don’t forget to check out Gridskipper’s handy camp out guides for San Francisco area Apple Stores, New York City area Apple Stores, and Los Angeles area Apple Stores. Each guide helps you find camp out necessities like food, free Wi-Fi, and public restrooms.

Odds of success: 3 to 1

Head to an AT&T Store

Pros: Ah, the AT&T store—the dark horse of iPhone retail availability. Allegedly, Steve Jobs himself has suggested that AT&T stores will be the best option, given how crowded the Apple Stores are sure to be. In any case, it is true that fewer people are probably aware that the iPhone is also available at AT&T locations, so it’s a good bet for the more agoraphobic. AT&T employees will also probably be better informed about the different rate plans and options, so if you have plan-specific questions, or you’re an existing AT&T customer, they may be a better choice than the Apple Store employees.

Cons: Not all AT&T stores are created equal. The iPhone is only available at company-owned stores. That means no authorized resellers and no franchisees. And AT&T employees are more likely to push more expensive AT&T plans and options, so turnover time may be a little slower than the Apple Store. And, according to AT&T spokesperson Mark Siegel, while every one of the 1,800 company-owned stores will have a quantity of iPhones, “some will have more than others,” so your mileage may vary.

Resources: AT&T’s store finder makes it easy to find company-owned locations: Just select “Apple iPhone” from the list of criteria and enter your ZIP code and how far you’re willing to travel.

Odds of success: 2 to 1

The Apple online store

Pros: Don’t like to leave your house? Then perhaps the online Apple Store is your best shot. It’s the only official online store where you can snag an iPhone from the comfort of your own desk. Avoid the madding crowds and don’t worry about spending a cold, unforgiving night beneath the stars just to get your iPhone. Starting at 6 p.m. Pacific on June 29, just point, click, enter your credit card information, and you can get back to your non-iPhone related life, if you’re lucky enough to have one.

Cons: No instant gratification for you! You probably won’t be able to get a hand on your shiny new iPhone until at least the following Monday. Also, as anybody who’s ever tried to order a particularly popular item online knows, be prepared for slow load times on Apple’s site and the possibility that the first batch of iPhones will be sold out in eleven seconds or so.

Resources: Starting on Friday, you’re probably going to want to start refreshing the Apple Store pretty frequently.

Odds of success: 4 to 1

Other online sources

Pros: Make an end-run around the legitimate sources by posting on Craigslist or looking for auctions on eBay. There are sure to be people buying iPhones for the very purpose of turning around to sell them online. So you can avoid waiting in queues or being trampled in the rush and just join the virtual crowds instead. It’s a lot less sweaty, that’s for sure.

Cons: Expect to pay a premium. These folks aren’t selling their hard-earned iPhones out of the goodness of their hearts. They’re going to want a substantial markup on the cost of the phone—prices of a few hundred dollars over retail will likely be par for the course. And, of course, there’s the ever-present possibility of falling prey to a scammer—nothing’s worse than opening up your cardboard box to find an origami iPhone or worse.

Resources: You won’t find any iPhone auctions on eBay right now— eBay shut down such an auction this spring —but they’ll probably start popping up on Friday evening. Meanwhile, Craigslist is already rife with people offering to sell phones off—once they get them, that is.

Odds of success: 10 to 1

Hire someone to wait in line for you

Pros: There are plenty of people out there looking to make a quick buck, like high school and college students on summer vacation. If you’re lucky, you may be able to cajole a teenaged relative or neighbor into waiting in line at your local Apple or AT&T Store, as long as you give them at least $50 and pay for all the Cinnabons they can eat. If you don’t know any prospective line waiters personally, you can always post a request on Craigslist, or hire one of the “professional” line waiters who are already offering their services. Fortunately, it doesn’t seem to matter who actually buys the phone, since all the activation is done online via iTunes at home.

Cons: Trust is always an issue with this sort of thing, which is why we recommend hiring someone you know. If you must find someone over the Internet, make sure you work out a deal that doesn’t involve giving your proxy all the money ahead of time, just in case they decide to skip out with your cash and your phone. Some waiters are demanding fees in the hundreds of dollars, so you may pay as much as you would via an online auction. And teenagers can eat a lot of Cinnabons.

Resources: Line waiters are already advertising their services in Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago and more. Prices range from $1,500 or more to barter offers like cigarettes and beer, or tickets to see the band The White Stripes.

Odds of success: 3 to 1

Befriend Steve Jobs

Pros: No one can get an iPhone like Jobs. He’s gotten them into the hands of reviewers like Walt Mossberg, David Pogue, and Steven Levy, and to friends (and fellow Apple board members) like Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

Cons: It’s unlikely Mr. Jobs is accepting applications for a new best friend and let’s face it: you probably aren’t an Apple board member or a prominent technology journalist. But should you run into Steve‚—say at the health food store, or shopping for a new black turtleneck—I’d recommend being ever-so-polite. Perhaps he’ll let you catch a tantalizing glimpse of his own iPhone and maybe, if his mercurial spirit is running high, he’ll toss you a box and drive away in his Mercedes, shouting “Happy iDay to all and to all a good night!”

Odds of success: 1,000,000 to 1

Wait

Pros: Give it a few weeks, or a month or two, and you should have little problem picking up an iPhone. Once the initial hype has died down, you can probably just waltz into the Apple Store of your choice at whatever time of day you want, and pick up an iPhone: No muss, no fuss. Same with the online Apple Store and AT&T retailers. In fact, starting on Saturday, Apple Stores will be opening at 9 a.m. all summer long, and you’ll be able to check availability online the night before. The online Apple Store and AT&T retailers will likewise also be throng-free.

Cons: No crowds? No adrenaline? No bonding with fellow Apple fans? No biting, punching, or trampling? Where's the fun in that? Plus, did we mention you have to wait ?

Odds of success: Even money

Whichever way you choose to try and acquire an iPhone, we wish you good health and the best of luck; the competition may be fierce. “With all of the consumer interest,” JupiterResearch’s Gartenberg says, “it’s likely that demand will outstrip supply.”

And if you do see Steve, try and snag us an extra.

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