I couldn’t stand it any longer. After playing with an iPhone on Saturday at an AT&T store, I decided to go to an Apple store on Sunday to see the iPhone in a more “natural” environment. What a difference! The marketing of the iPhone at the Apple Store was much more polished and appealing than what I saw in the AT&T store. For one thing, you could see the stock on hand, boxes stacked up behind a roped off area of the store. Also, there were plenty of activated iPhones ready to play with and make test calls on. And perhaps most importantly, there were people there who were interested in selling iPhones.
So why didn’t I buy one? I almost did, but a series of events led me to leave the mall without this beautiful gadget. I decided not to satisfy my “technolust” not because of Apple, but because of two other companies who got in the way of an impulse purchase: Juniper Bank and AT&T.
Juniper Bank is the company that offers the Apple “iTunes Rewards” Visa card. Since I’m one who always looks to take advantage of every possible premium, even on hot products like the iPhone, I had intended to apply for this card in the Apple Store and use it to purchase the iPhone. I didn’t think there would be a problem with getting this card, as I have excellent credit, and in fact already have a couple of other credit cards from Juniper Bank. Alas, after I had filled out the application on one of the computers in the store (using private browsing in Safari, of course) I received a message that the bank needed additional information to process my information. I then called the phone number for Juniper Bank on their web site, and after navigating through a number of menus, finally got to speak to a real person. She was not very helpful at all, basically giving me the same response that I got from the web application. Indeed, I think she may have just been reading it off of the same web page I was looking at. So, strike one for getting an iPhone on July 1. But I wasn’t giving up.
I called my wife on one of the demo iPhones in the store to test the sound quality. It was as good, if not better, than the sound quality on the Verizon “Chocolate” phone I currently use. And my ear didn’t accidentally activate the touch screen, as it does on my Chocolate. Yet if I wasn’t going to get my free iTunes from the Visa card, I had to be really impressed with the whole package. Hardware wise, I certainly was very impressed. This was the best cellular phone I had ever used. It may have been the best consumer electronics device I had ever used, and I have used a lot. But then I began studying the AT&T side of the deal.
The service plans from AT&T are reasonable, but I had to check out a few more details. The mall I visited had two AT&T stores, and I visited both to discuss the iPhone service plans. The first place I visited was the AT&T kiosk nearest to the Apple Store. A woman there was discussing the iPhone service options to another interested customer, and gave conflicting information about the “family plan” options. She said that you could have an iPhone on a family plan, but only if it wasn’t the primary phone. In other words, she was saying that if you wanted an iPhone with a family plan, you could only do so if you got a different phone first, then added the iPhone as an additional line. That didn’t make much sense to me, so I asked to look at the brochures she had. When I pointed out to her that the AT&T iPhone service plan brochure does indicate a family plan is available with the iPhone as the primarily line, she seemed confused for a moment. Then she said that maybe you could get the iPhone as the primarily line, but only if all other phones on the family plan were iPhones. When I asked her if I could apply my 15% employee discount that AT&T provides to faculty at my university, at first she said yes, then she said no, then she said she wasn’t sure. It was obvious to me at this point that she really didn’t know enough about the iPhone service plans to give a straight answer. Strike two.
Then I decided to walk to the other end of the mall where there was a “real” AT&T store. I thought that perhaps the folks at the kiosk weren’t trained as well as employees at full-fledged AT&T stores. That hunch was correct; I talked to a woman who seemed to be quite clear about the options for iPhone service. Yes, I could have an iPhone on a family plan. No, it didn’t matter if it was a primary line or not; I could have any combination of iPhones with other phones on a family plan. No, I couldn’t get the employee discount on either the iPhone or the monthly service fees. At that point, she said that wasn’t an AT&T decision, but something that Apple had insisted upon…that Apple had stipulated with AT&T that no service plan discounts could be applied to any account that had an iPhone. I found that rather suspicious, but she said it with such authority that I didn’t question it. But then she asked me a rather unexpected question…
“What is it about the iPhone that appeals to you so much?” the AT&T salesperson asked. I replied that I liked a lot of things about the iPhone, and proceeded to mention many of its features that impressed me. Then she told me that I could get all of those features “and more” with another phone she could sell me. Walking away from the people crowding around the iPhone display, she led me to a much less busy part of the store where they were displaying a number of Windows Mobile Edition “smartphones.” She proudly demonstrated all of the features on one particularly ugly phone that she said was her favorite, and that it “had all of the features of the iPhone” at a much lower price. Plus I could get my employee discount on the service plan. Plus it would work much better with Windows than would the iPhone. Sure, the iPhone will be popular with the “die hard Apple fans,” but once the dust settles, she was confident that I would be much happier with a Windows-based smartphone.
Now I was getting really concerned. Her spiel sounded so well-rehearsed and polished that I couldn’t help but wonder if AT&T may be encouraging employees to play down the iPhone. Maybe it had to do with commissions or something. Maybe it had to do with this particular employee’s obvious preference for Windows. Or maybe there was something even more sinister going on. Could it be that some people at AT&T don’t want the iPhone to succeed? Not the top brass, but maybe middle managers who may feel a bit threatened by the iPhone? If nothing else, it was clear to me that the iPhone marketing approach at the Apple Store was worlds apart from the approach at the AT&T stores I visited.
And that gave me enough uncertainty about my purchase that I decided to wait. Strike three. No iPhone for me today. Until it becomes clearer to me whether AT&T is really on board with Apple on the iPhone, I’m not sure I’m ready to bite. The phone itself is great. But my impression of the company providing the phone service is considerably less than great. It may well be that the only thing standing in the way of the iPhone’s success is AT&T. As a stockholder in both companies, I’d really like them to see the value of working together…not just “at the top” where the deals are made, but “in the trenches” where the sales are made.
At the very least, I’ll wait until I hear what Juniper Bank’s story is. Gotta get those iTunes rewards!