How to get an iPhone 4 on Thursday

What you need to know to get your hands on a new iPhone

The iPhone 4 madness may have not crested yet.

With AT&T suspending online orders and Apple boasting that it sold more than 600,000 in less than 24 hours last week, you don't have to be a soothsayer to say that the iPhone 4 is in short-shorter-shortest supply.

So how do you -- whether you're a procrastinator or an innocent victim whose luck ran out when the ordering system collapsed last week -- score a new iPhone on Thursday?

With difficulty, it seems.

But you do have options.

Where can I get an iPhone 4? It looks like your best bet is an Apple retail store.

Apple doesn't disclose the quantity of inventory on hand, and what with the pre-order sellout and the ensuing delivery date pushback for online orders -- Apple now says it won't ship new orders until July 14 -- iPhones may be in short supply Thursday.

What about AT&T? Won't its stores have them on hand? Nope.

On Tuesday, the carrier said that it wouldn't have any iPhone 4s for sale to walk-in customers on Thursday.

"AT&T plans to have iPhone 4 inventory -- available on a first-come, first-served basis while supplies last -- on June 29 in its retail locations, at www.att.com, and in business sales channels," the company said in a statement.

Looks like AT&T used its allocation to fulfill the pre-orders that swamped its systems June 17, and which forced it to suspend all online orders later that day.

OK, I'm heading to Best Buy or Wal-Mart or Radio Shack... there's no nearby Apple store. All we can say is, "Best of luck."

From all reports, Apple stiffed its retail partners. Best Buy's customer forum, for example, is thick with reports from people who claim to be in the know saying that the electronics discounter will have a very small supply of iPhone 4s to sell Thursday. Ditto for Wal-Mart.

Radio Shack looks even gloomier. "In some cases, stores that took requests will not receive the iPhone 4 on June 24," Radio Shack announced Tuesday on its Facebook page. "We are sorry for any confusion and disappointment regarding this and will share future availability as soon as we have more information."

The retailer can't even promise that people who pre-ordered an iPhone 4 last week at a store that will have a supply will actually get theirs Thursday. Radio Shack doesn't come right out and say this, but it won't be selling to walk-in customers this week. "Beginning June 22, stores will contact customers from their request list and schedule appointments for customers to come in Thursday, purchase units and activate service. Sales are by appointment only," said Radio Shack's Facebook post.

When does the iPhone 4 go on sale? In the U.S., Apple's retail stores open on Thursday, June 24, at 7 a.m. local time.

As we already mentioned, AT&T won't have any iPhones to sell to walk-in customers until at least June 29. If you managed to get in a pre-order last week for in-store pick-up, you should hear from someone at the store, who will schedule a time to retrieve your precious.

Best Buy, Wal-Mart and Radio Shack will open at their regular hours, but remember that not all stores will have the devices in stock and most of those that do will have a very limited supply.

Will there be lines Thursday? Does Steve Jobs like to say "boom"?

Lines were significantly shorter last year for the iPhone 3GS than they were in 2008 when people were caught up in the nuttiness of the 3G. Credit that to the switch back to at-home activation.

This year, Apple and AT&T took online pre-orders for at-home delivery, which theoretically should cut down the lines at Apple's brick-and-mortar stores Thursday.

But indicators point to a much bigger launch for the iPhone 4 than for 2009's 3GS. We think the lines will be long tomorrow, with a good chance that Apple's stores sell out.

What countries get the iPhone 4 on Thursday? France, Germany, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S. That's it.

Earlier this month, Apple said that the Phone 4 will launch by the end of July in 18 additional countries: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. The rest of the 88 markets in Apple's realm won't get the new iPhone until September.

Apple hasn't set any definite dates in July or September for either group, nor do the online stores dedicated to the 18 July countries mention any schedule.

What will I pay for the iPhone 4? As usual, that depends on your relationship with AT&T, and if you own an older iPhone.

If you're currently not an AT&T customer, you're set: You qualify for the subsidized prices of $199 for the 16GB model and $299 for the 32GB version.

If you are a current iPhone owner, or an AT&T customer who uses another type of phone, you may be eligible for the $199/$299 prices. In fact, you have a much better shot at those prices than you would have last year with the iPhone 3GS, when AT&T subscribers raised a stink over a $200 surcharge that AT&T levied on customers who had not fulfilled most or all of their two-year contracts. (Under pressure, AT&T relented, giving customers eligible in July, August and September immediate access to the lower prices.)

This time, AT&T has said every iPhone owner scheduled for upgrade pricing between June 7 and the end of the year would be immediately eligible for the $199/$299 prices.

To see if you've made the grade, check your account online at ATT.com, or dial *639# (star-639-pound) from your iPhone (the latter results in a returned text message).

How long will it take to get an iPhone? Not long.

Like last year, iPhone buyers can pay, walk out of the store and head home to activate their new devices using iTunes 9.2.

What do I bring with me to the store? To get out of the store with an iPhone, you'll need a credit card to pay for the phone. Later, during the iTunes activation process, you'll need your Social Security number for the credit check required by AT&T. If you're replacing an existing phone, you obviously have to have that number and authorization to manage its account.

Ordering online? You'll need the above plus your billing address, date of birth, and an e-mail address to open a new account.

It sounds like madness. I'll wait a few days. Is there a way to tell whether the iPhone 4 is in stock before I drive to the store? Probably.

The last three years, Apple has fired up an iPhone availability tool that lets you check the company's retail stores' stocks, and there's no good reason why it won't launch it again. (But this is Apple we're talking about, so who really knows?) Here's a link to 2009's tool; it currently redirects to the iPhone 4 online ordering site.

I keep hearing people talking about a recovery, but it hasn't reached me. Is there anything I can get on the cheap? For $99, you can get an 8GB version of last year's iPhone 3GS. And unlike the iPhone 4, the older 3GS is in stock.

Want something for free? If you have an iPhone 3GS, upgrade to the iOS 4 operating system -- formerly called iPhone OS 4 -- to give your year-old smartphone multitasking and the rest of the operating system-based features that the iPhone 4 sports. You don't get the front-facing camera or FaceTime or the gyroscope, but like we said, it's free.

Money's no object. What are my options? There's always eBay.

As of early Wednesday, there were hundreds of iPhone 4s listed on the auction site, with prices as high as -- are you sitting down? -- $15,000.

You heard right: Fifteen. Thousand. Dollars. And look... shipping is free. What a deal.

Caveat emptor, everyone.

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@ix.netcom.com.

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