iPhone 4S supplies tighten

Apple requires retail buyers to reserve smartphone, but runs out of most models

Apple on Monday instituted a reservation-only policy for iPhone 4S retail sales, hinting at a repeat of the smartphone's annual supply-and-demand mismatches.

Apple's revised how-to-buy page told customers in the U.S., the U.K., Australia, Canada, France and Germany that the iPhone 4S would be "available in store by reservation only." Buyers were instructed to select a retail store and check inventory after 9 p.m. local time before placing a reservation hold.

"When you come in, you'll choose a carrier and plan, and we'll get your iPhone up and running before you leave the store," Apple promised.

Spot checks at stores in each U.S. time zone shortly after 9 p.m. found that the lower-priced 16GB and 32GB models were most often out of stock, while the $399 64GB smartphone was more widely available.

In many instances, models were available in either white or black, but not both.

At 9 p.m. ET, the reservation system said the flagship store on Fifth Avenue in New York City was out of the 16GB iPhone 4S for both AT&T and Sprint, and out of the 32GB for AT&T. Verizon customers had their pick of all three models.

But inside of three hours all phones at the store were pegged as "unavailable."

The limited inventory of the 4S is not the first time Apple has run short of a brand-new iPhone.

In 2010, Apple sold 1.7 million iPhones in the first three days after it reached retail -- less than half the 4 million it claimed for the iPhone 4S -- but still exhausted its stock. The outage prompted then-CEO Steve Jobs to issue an apology to "those customers who were turned away because we did not have enough supply."

The iPhone 4S went on sale Oct 14 at Apple's retail stores and other outlets in the U.S., the U.K, Australia, Canada, France, Germany and Japan. Apple plans to roll out the phone in another 22 countries Oct. 28., and to a total of 70 by the end of the year.

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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