Apple, carriers launch iPhone 4S pre-sale

Verizon first to take orders; at times, Apple's site acted erratic

Verizon Wireless today beat Apple and its carrier rivals to the iPhone 4S pre-order punch, kicking off sales just after midnight PT.

Sprint followed about 20 minutes later.

But while Verizon's site appeared to be working normally -- and responded promptly to orders that were aborted at the last minute -- Sprint's was initially sluggish and displayed a "site is temporarily unavailable" message when one of the iPhone 4S models was chosen.

By 12:35 a.m., however, Sprint's site accepted an order.

Apple's online store reopened around 12:30 a.m. Pacific after its usual pre-launch maintenance, and appeared to be operating normally at first, although Computerworld was not able to place an order as a new customer with any of the three carriers. In fact, after selecting Sprint, a message appeared saying that the iPhone 4S could only be pre-ordered by existing Sprint customers, and told others that they would have to purchase their phones at an Apple retail store.

But within 30 minutes, Apple's pre-sales site started acting erratically, at times returning a generic "Not Found" error message and at other times refusing to allow a carrier choice. At 1:15 a.m. those problems appeared to have been largely resolved, but Apple's site was at times lethargic, likely because of the traffic load.

AT&T did not begin taking pre-orders at its website until nearly 1:00 a.m. Pacific.

Today's pre-order launch had been set Tuesday when Apple CEO Tim Cook led a launch event that unveiled the long-rumored smartphone.

Much of the commentary about the iPhone 4S, particularly on Twitter, was negative that day, with many expressing disappointment that the smartphone didn't offer a larger-sized screen or support the faster LTE networks that AT&T and Verizon are deploying.

It's impossible to know whether the negative reaction will mean fewer sales, but most analysts have predicted that it will have little impact and remained confident that Apple will sell a record number of iPhones during the fourth quarter.

Last year Apple sold 16.2 million iPhones in the fourth quarter.

Apple is selling the iPhone 4S at three prices -- $199, $299 and $399 -- rather than the two prices of earlier versions. Also today, Apple and carriers kicked off sales of the $99 8GB iPhone 4.

The company has departed from past practice in another way: It kept alive 2009's iPhone 3GS, which it and carriers will offer to customers free when they commit to a two-year service contract.

iPhones ordered online today are to be delivered by Oct. 14, said Apple, the same day in-store sales will begin. Apple has said its retail stores will open their doors next Friday at 8 a.m. local time, an hour earlier than usual for most of the outlets.

Also today, Apple told customers they could order an unlocked iPhone 4S -- one not tied to a specific carrier or connected to a contract -- in November for prices ranging from $649 (for a 16GB model) to $849 (for a 64GB phone).

taking iPhone 4S pre-orders
Apple started taking iPhone 4S pre-orders early Friday, but its online store had on-again, off-again problems.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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