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Originally published Saturday, July 12, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Widespread iPhone hangups at 3G launch

Customers who lined up early Friday for a new iPhone 3G were expecting to walk away making calls and surfing the Web on the hot new mobile...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Customers who lined up early Friday for a new iPhone 3G were expecting to walk away making calls and surfing the Web on the hot new mobile device. Instead, many were left without any functioning cellphone at all.

A flood of customers in 21 countries trying to activate their iPhones, which went on sale at 8 a.m. Friday starting at $199, triggered worldwide gridlock on Apple's iTunes server. Many buyers gave up after up to half an hour of failed attempts to register the new handsets. But by that point, their old phones had already been deactivated, leaving them technologically stranded.

Having waited more than five hours to buy an iPhone at the Apple Store in Bellevue Square, David Herley quit after 15 minutes of watching the iTunes standby cursor spin.

"Now I have no phones that work," he grumbled. "This just makes my day."

Chris Brown arrived at 7 a.m. with one functioning iPhone and left at 12:30 p.m. with two inoperable ones. He also stood in line last year for the original iPhone, and he remembers the glitches then, too.

Wireless carrier AT&T, which struggled with activation snags when the original iPhone debuted, said the blame this time around lay squarely with Apple.

A spokesman for AT&T, the exclusive service provider for the iPhone, said Friday's problems originated in Apple's iTunes software because of enormous volume and have since been resolved. Apple did not return phone calls seeking comment.

AT&T stores, which quickly sold out of iPhones Friday, instructed customers to try completing the activation process at home. But Apple retailers continued to try connecting to iTunes in the store, which proved slow and unreliable.

The problems were hardly foreseen when Taylor Jacobs claimed his spot at the head of the line at the University Village Apple Store at 5:30 p.m. Thursday. He was soon joined by his friend Travis Lummus, who brought two lawn chairs and an Xbox 360.

Jacobs sold his first iPhone as soon as he heard rumors of the new version. Lummus is on his fifth — his previous phones succumbed to misfired software hacks or water damage.

By morning, the pair of 17-year-olds were locked in staring contests with the Apple employees guarding the door.

Though first inside at 8 a.m. — ahead of more than 250 others lined up across the shopping center — Jacobs and Lummus did not leave until 9:15, still unable to activate their phones until after noon. The first buyer out of the store was Jared Job, also disappointed that his iPhone was not yet operational.

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Timothy Meaney and his two sons were among the first in line at Bellevue Square. They arrived at 4:30 a.m., an hour and a half before the mall doors opened and another two hours before the Apple Store did.

After delays on the phone with AT&T while trying to switch his family plan over from T-Mobile USA, he bought four new iPhones for the whole family (one to replace his old one). But they couldn't activate them over iTunes.

He and his sons left the store about 12:30 p.m. with the goods in shopping bags instead of in their pockets. None of the new phones worked, and neither did their old ones.

At least Meaney made it to the cashier. Hundreds of customers still waited behind him. About 30 were penned up in a maze in the mall concourse, and hundreds more waited in the bowels of the mall's service corridors.

Near the end of the line, Byron Hammar and several others had just arrived after four hours' waiting at the Woodinville AT&T store. That store, like the other AT&T branches, ran out of stock by around 10 a.m.

Some business customers who stood in line for hours at Apple Stores and tried to use corporate discounts were turned away, told they had to make such purchases at AT&T stores, which by then had long since sold out.

As the mayhem continued at the Apple Store, Carlos Barrios strolled by, contentedly thumbing his original iPhone model. He said he would come back later to buy two iPhones for his kids.

"It's too much time in line," he said. "I'll wait for the craziness to end."

Apple shares slid 2.3 percent to $172.59 Friday amid a marketwide decline.

Isaac Arnsdorf: 206-464-2397 or iarnsdorf@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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