Like many people around the world today I received my iPhone 4S in the mail and was unable to activate it. I have a theory as to why.

The Setup

I pre-ordered a black iPhone 4S for myself and a white one for my wife, at about 9am EST the morning pre-orders were open. Today the phones arrived at about 2pm EST and I set about getting them activated, restored from backups, and ready to use.

Activation turned out to be a nightmare. Unable to activate the phone via iTunes, or right from the phone itself on wifi or 3G, I finally called ATT and was helped by Kathy, an extremely nice and courteous customer service agent. She explained that pre-ordered phones were causing a lot of problems today, but that she should be able to help me.

She was able to activate the ICCID and IMEI numbers for both phones on our account and we were able to get my black iPhone 4S activated by doing the activation dance via 3G, after it had failed again on iTunes and wifi.

I mistakenly assumed that would be the trick for the white iPhone 4S so I thanked Kathy and let her go. But trying to activate by 3G failed and I noticed that the white iPhone only had one bar of service and no amount of restarting would fix that (the black iPhone was enjoying a nice four bars of service). No amount of restarting the white iPhone or moving around my house or yard would increase the bars.

Placing Blame

I noticed on Twitter that scores of people who pre-ordered the iPhone were running into the same issues I ran into. Many of them said they’d talked to ATT customer service agents on the phone and at stores and they had all blamed Apple for the issues. Finally I decided to drive to my local ATT store to see what could be done.

When I arrived at the store Sarah came up to help me and the first thing she asked was if I had pre-ordered my iPhones. I answered yes and while she proceeded to try and get the phone to activate she told me that there wasn’t much she could actually do and I would have to call Apple because the problem was on their end. She explained that iPhones purchased at her store had no problems, but phones pre-ordered from Apple were failing.

At this point the whole situation is really starting to smell fishy. Every single ATT customer service person I talked to, no matter how nice they were and how much they helped, was giving me the same line, it was Apple’s fault. The only thing I could do was call Apple, so I did that and took a seat at the ATT store.


After waiting on hold for about seven minutes with Apple another ATT rep came over and asked if I needed help. I explained to Alex the issue I was having and he asked if he could see the white iPhone. After giving it to him he walked over to his computer, plugged the phone in, and about two minutes later had the phone activated and ready to go. He showed me he had also done something that fixed the bars of service issue and now the phone had four bars of service.

So the first ATT rep I talked to today was helpful, got one of my phones activated via some ICCID, IMEI, and activating over 3G magic, and basically told me that phones not purchased thru ATT were causing issues.

The second ATT rep I talked to said there wasn’t anything they could do and that I needed to call Apple because the problem was on their end.

The third ATT rep I talked to was able to activate the white iPhone in just over two minutes by plugging the phone into his terminal and he told me that I should come to the ATT store in the future to buy my iPhones and avoid any activation issues.

The Conspiracy

From what I could tell today, activations thru iTunes or via wifi were completely borked, while activations via 3G (if the phone had good service) or at an ATT store worked just fine once the ICCID and IMEI numbers were configured in the system.

I think, and this is just a theory, that ATT limited activations coming thru Apple servers to their servers, giving ATT stores activation priority.

This way they look like customer service heroes and Apple looks like they dropped the ball.

This is pretty far fetched I know, but I wouldn’t put it past them. Regardless, everyone I talked to at ATT was repeating the same mantra, its Apple’s fault. The fact that the message was universal makes me think that they were told to say it.

So who actually wins in this whole thing? No one! ATT thinks they are winning by smearing Apple, but ultimately any bad experience with an iPhone on ATT makes a customer less willing to use the iPhone on ATT in the future. The consumer certainly doesn’t win, how many hours of lost productivity were there today for people who went thru the same thing I experienced?

The whole thing stinks in my opinion. What do you think?