Using Apple’s online iPhone buying program

I’d promised myself I wasn’t going to get one, but Apple’s Buy iPhone 3G program proved too darn convenient, and I found myself on a recent weeknight in the Derby Street Apple Store in Hingham, Mass. And if it wasn’t for a problem of my own creation, I would have been in and out in 10 minutes or less.

Apple recently launched a new Web site that enables you to get a head start on buying an iPhone 3G. The service is set up to streamline the credit check process that AT&T, Apple’s U.S. cell phone partner, uses to vet customers, both new to the service and those already in the system, like myself.

If you haven’t already gone through the process of getting an iPhone at an Apple or AT&T Store, let me tell you, this makes a big difference. You can, from the convenience of your home, run through the first few steps necessary to get an iPhone. That saves you time when you finally get to the Apple Store, and perhaps more to the point for Apple, it saves store employees time, because they can pull up the record you’ve already created; you can also set up a time and date to visit them to get some personalized service.

As an existing iPhone customer making the switch to an iPhone 3G, all I had to do was to enter my existing account information—my cell phone number and some personal information to verify—to let Apple and AT&T make sure that I was eligible for an upgrade. If I’d been a new customer the process would have been a bit longer, but it’s more or less the same thing.

Once I was done with the credit check, I made arrangements to stop in to my local Apple Store to complete the transaction. Unfortunately, that store is still more than an hour away from where I live, so I dropped in for a visit on my way to meet some friends for dinner the other night.

The only hitch—something unforeseen by Apple and AT&T in the few days that had passed between the time I filled out the form and when I came in—was that my account balanced slipped to past due status. That put my upgrade on hold until I sorted that out, which I did from my existing phone without any trouble.

Once that was done, the Apple Store employee—a really nice guy by the name of Spencer—unboxed my new 8GB black iPhone, hooked it up to a nearby iMac to activate it, and I was good to go. He even kindly let me test the new iPhone by making a call from one of the store’s display iPhone models to make sure my number had activated properly. My old iPhone is still intact and working—it’s just been deactivated as an actual phone, so I’ve now got an iPod touch with optional phone service if I want to reactivate it at some point.

I’m a MobileMe user, and I keep my personal e-mail, calendar and contact information synced between my computers and iPhone using MobileMe. So it was trivial to set up my new iPhone, which had a healthy amount of battery charge straight from the box, to check my account and sync my contact and calendar data.

If I’d brought my MacBook Pro—the primarily system my iPhone is connected to—that Apple Store employee would have helped me sync applications to my new phone as well, but it wasn’t necessary. And by the time I got back to my car, my mail, calendar and contact information had already synced to the new phone.

When I finally switched from a BlackBerry to an iPhone last year, one of the first things I noticed was how convenient it was to use the phone—not just to actually interact with the iPhone, but to have useful information on it. Right out of the gate, Apple made syncing the iPhone with your important data to be a painless experience.

I’ve gone through the steps of upgrading a cell phone before. That process was once the exclusive domain of cell phone store salespeople, and usually fraught with missteps, lost data and other inconveniences (if not disasters). Now Apple has made the process of upgrading your phone as painless as actually using it. It’s definitely a step in the right direction, and a lesson for other phone makers—and other service providers—to learn from.

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