Apple adds online purchase of iPhone 3G for new customers

At long last, you can now buy an iPhone 3G via the online Apple Store and have it hand-delivered by your local FedEx guy directly to your domicile—presuming you meet certain criteria.

It’s been a long and bumpy road for buying the iPhone 3G online. When the device was first launched in July 2008, the only way to get your hands on one was to go in to your local Apple Store or AT&T outlet. In September of last year, Apple started letting customers use its online store to reserve an iPhone at their local Apple Store; the process worked for both those customers new to AT&T as well as existing subscribers. But you still had to make a trip to your local brick-and-mortar to get your hands on the unit, and availability was not guaranteed.

Last December, AT&T started offering online purchases of the iPhone and since then it has also, from time to time, sold refurbished units. Regardless of where you purchased the iPhone, however, you were still required to sign up for a two-year commitment with AT&T.

By contrast, in 2007 the original iPhone was available for sale online at the same time that it arrived in stores. The was made possible by the ability for customers to activate their iPhones via iTunes at home; with the iPhone 3G, Apple and AT&T in most cases insisted upon activating the unit in the store.

Despite the addition of online purchasing Wednesday, there are still some restrictions. For example, while new customers can have their iPhones delivered, the process doesn’t currently accommodate existing AT&T customers; they can go through the sign-up process online, but they will still have to pick up the iPhone at a retail store.

As always, we expect this to provide ample fodder for Apple conspiracy theorists on both sides: those who will claim that this illustrates an attempt to boost unit sales that were down sequentially last quarter, and those who will point to this as an obvious indication that Apple is clearing out inventory in advance of introducing a new model this summer.

While it does seem likely that there’s some reason Apple chose to do this now, we’re inclined to believe that the wheels of progress grind exceedingly slow, especially when AT&T is in the mix.

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