Should you buy an iPhone this holiday season?

The iPhone is the Tickle Me Elmo of this year's shopping season. Should you cave in and buy one or stay strong and wait 'til later (or never)?

I have a problem. Maybe you have the same one? Somebody in my house wants an iPhone this holiday season. Real bad. Like "don't get me a single other thing, it's the only present I want" bad. That kind of bad.

While I'm sorely tempted to be able to bypass the gift-boxed golf balls and three-pack of fake cashmere dress socks this year, I also don't want to be played for a fool by everyone's favorite fruit-logo'ed electronics vendor.

As early iPhone buyers who were caught by Apple's unexpected price drop just two months after the phone's release know only too well, the company's plans for the iPhone are, shall we say, still evolving. (That's especially true now that AT&T is saying a faster version will be out sometime next year.)

Do I really want to watch my beloved unwrap an iPhone on the big day, only to have it look old and clunky when some newer, hotter model hits the shelves?

(The notoriously closed-mouthed Apple won't say anything about its plans, but Macworld, at which the company traditionally makes a raft of important announcements, is scarily close to the holidays, a mere two weeks into the new year.)

Then, too, there's the features list, or as some detractors like to call it, the not-yet-features list. Right now, my loved one is blinded by the iPhone light, but is it truly the best phone for his needs? From G3 to GPS, there are a lot of features missing from the version of the iPhone being hawked for the holidays.

And in the meantime, other almost-as-cool phones have hit the market and won some attention as well. What if the AT&T Tilt or the LG Voyager or the rumored-to-be-upcoming BlackBerry 9000 is actually the better choice?

The service plan could be problematic as well. For reasons too dorky to disclose in public (cough TracFone cough), we don't have any existing wireless service plan in my household, but other iPhone wanters who have current plans with carriers other than AT&T need to decide if they want that Apple unit badly enough to eat whatever is left of their current agreement.

Crowd control?

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Finally, there are a couple of practical timing questions. As we all know, it's the Biggest Shopping Month of the Year, which means I'm not the only person out there contemplating an iPhone purchase right now.

If I wait till the last minute, or even the last week, is there a chance Apple will run out of units? (Apple, surprise surprise, officially says no, but declines to comment on how many units have been manufactured or shipped.) If I choose to buy an iPhone in-store, will there be an educated, upbeat Apple employee available to answer any lingering questions, or will it be three-deep at the Genius Bar?

And skipping ahead to the big day, what happens when thousands and thousands of iPhone giftees all rip their phones out of that tasteful Apple packaging and try to activate them in the very same two- or three-hour time slot? Will iTunes be able to handle it? Will AT&T be up to the task?

Representatives for Apple and AT&T both separately swore to me on a stack of greeting cards that they're ready for whatever onslaught ensues, but I'm still worried. Buyers who bought the iPhone in its first couple days of availability reported having problems with activation when transferring an old mobile number over to their new unit. Is that going to happen again?

So many questions! So few buying days left!

As luck would have it, though, I work at Computerworld, which means that instead of wasting hours surfing the blogosphere looking for answers, I get to wander the halls of our (virtual) office and waste the time of my hardworking colleagues instead.

Because journalists and analysts are a slippery bunch that wiggles away from definitive declarations, I resolve to not just gather opinions, but to pin everyone to the mat. Which means that, after hemming and hawing, my homegrown band of experts had to come up with a yes or no answer. The goal? To make my, and perhaps your, holiday iPhone buying decision a little easier.

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