iPhone 4S preordering: Early-morning snags frustrate early adopters

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The iPhone 4S, Apple’s latest smartphone offering, went on sale in the U.S. at around 12:40 a.m. PT Friday, after a lengthy period where the company’s online store displayed the “be back soon” graphic. The websites for AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint, the three U.S. carriers that offer the iPhone, began taking orders around the same time. However, for those who stayed up late—or in the case of some people on the east coast, woke up early—to try to be the first to get their orders in, the process wasn’t always a smooth one.

For those who opted to order directly from Apple, the process was especially frustrating. Throughout the early morning, the entry page for the pre-order process, where you choose your phone and carrier, worked flawlessly. But if comments on Twitter—as well as my personal experience—were at all representative, the subsequent steps were anything but flawless.

Many users initially couldn’t get past the first few screens, which let you indicate whether you are a new or existing customer on the chosen carrier; after clicking Continue, the pages would simply reload. If they succeeded in getting past that screen, the next screen was often one that read, simply, “We’re sorry, but there was an error processing your request. Please try again later.” (I personally saw this screen at least ten times over a one-hour period trying to place my pre-order.)

Image courtesy Twitter user @AndruEdwards

Based on many conversation I’ve had via phone, email, and Twitter, this error screen appears to have been encountered most frequently by AT&T upgraders, and generally occurred during one of the phases where the Apple Store was communicating with AT&T’s servers to either verify upgrade eligibility or check voice and data plans. Although I haven’t been able to confirm this with either Apple or AT&T, this leads me to believe that AT&T’s servers were—like last year—the culprit.

Image courtesy Twitter user @RobWensing

Indeed, at around 1:44am PST, after more than an hour of ordering problems—at this point, I had more than a dozen failed attempts under my belt—the Apple Store stopped taking orders altogether, instead displaying the message, “We are temporarily unable to take iPhone orders. We apologize for this inconvenience. Please try again later.”

Ten minutes later, at roughly 1:54 a.m. PT, Apple reopened the ordering process, but with a significant change. Instead of letting you actually order an iPhone 4S, you simply chose the model and carrier you wanted and, if upgrading, entered your current wireless-account information. After a brief wait, you saw the message below, indicating that you had successfully reserved an iPhone—a place in the delivery queue, if you will—and that Apple would email you when it was time to return to the online store to complete your order.

In my case, that email came about two hours later, at exactly 3:45 a.m. PT. I returned to the store at around 10 a.m. this morning, where the process resumed by asking me to choose my data, text, and voice plans. This time, these phases of the process were quick and easy, as I was able to complete them and check out in a few minutes’ time. (Thanks to this process, I can confirm that if you’re an AT&T customer who’s currently still on the original $30 unlimited-data plan and $5 text-message plan, you have the option of keeping those plans when you upgrade to the iPhone 4S.)

Even with this new system, however, some people are apparently having problems. TUAW reports that some customers who successfully reserved a phone have been unable to complete their purchases, instead being directed to their local Apple retail store.

Interestingly, some people have reported that they were able to successfully order the iPhone 4S directly through AT&T, Verizon, or Sprint while Apple’s site was having problems. But it wasn’t smooth sailing for everyone. For example, some upgrade orders attempted through AT&T’s site hit snags after the site had successfully confirmed eligibility for a discounted upgrade. I personally couldn’t order through either AT&T’s Express Upgrade store or the main AT&T Wireless site—each gave me an error during the eligibility-check stage. And several Twitter users noted that people with corporate or similar discount plans couldn’t upgrade through their carrier’s site.

In the end, as with the iPhone 4, these glitches are unlikely to affect overall sales of the iPhone 4S, as they’ve thus far affected only the earliest of early adopters. Still, you’d think that after doing this a few times, Apple and the carriers—especially AT&T—would be able to handle the expected rush. To Apple’s credit, the switchover to the reservation system was relatively quick, and it seems to be working well for many people.

Just imagine what the process would have been like if people weren’t so disappointed with the iPhone 4S, huh?

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