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iPhone 4 launch takes place in New Zealand, but confusion reigns down under

Imagine if Apple's handset prices in the US weren't announced at WWDC, and the subsidy pricing was up to AT&T. Imagine if AT&T told potential iPhone customers that the iPhone 4 would launch on July 30, and pricing info would be released well in advance of that.

Now imagine the weeks leading up to July 30 went by, and AT&T didn't say a word about the iPhone 4's pricing, even though many other countries had already released handset and plan info. It's July 29, and instead of working with its customers, throwing them a bone, giving them some sort of information, AT&T instead remained utterly reticent and deleted any posts on its forums remotely critical of its handling of the situation. Imagine AT&T followed up by deleting all mention of the iPhone 4 from its website: no pricing info, no pre-orders, not even a "coming soon" link.

Imagine that July 30 comes along, with the usual line-ups happening nationwide. You'll also have to imagine there's no Apple Stores, and AT&T is the only place in the country where you can buy a subsidized iPhone. At eight in the morning on the day the iPhone 4 is supposed to launch, there's no trace of it at any AT&T store, or Best Buy, or Wal-Mart, or anywhere else you might reasonably expect to find an iPhone 4 on the day it's launched. And even in the midst of all this, and with media reports flying about that Apple's partnership with AT&T has been cancelled, AT&T still doesn't have a single scrap of information to spare for its loyal customers. Not a word of explanation. Not a single excuse. Nothing. And no iPhone 4 anywhere in the nation.

Now replace "AT&T" with "Vodafone," and you have a picture of the iPhone "launch" in New Zealand. I put "launch" in heavy sarcasm quotes, because the iPhone 4 is not launching in New Zealand today... and thanks to Vodafone, no one has any idea when or even if it will be coming to New Zealand at a subsidised price. Read on for a textbook example of how to generate a PR disaster, and also an example of how not to treat potential customers.

Update: I just got off the phone with my local Vodafone retailer, and they claim they will be selling the iPhone 4 today starting at mid-day, but only to those willing to sign a 2-year plan; they are not selling unsubsidized handsets, and the iPhone 4 will be available for online sale "in the coming weeks." I'll be heading over there momentarily to try my luck, and will update later whether I'm successful in getting one or not.

Update 2: It turns out the store reps were correct, and my local Vodafone retailer did indeed get a supply of iPhone 4s just before noon. An orderly group of about a dozen customers lined up outside the store while Vodafone employees set up iPhone promotional materials and waited for clearance from corporate to sell the units. In a case of "better late than never," Vodafone sent a text to all iPhone owners at exactly 12:00 telling people iPhone 4 was available in limited quantities. By that time, it wasn't clear if there'd be enough stock to go around for people who may have given up hope earlier in the day, although store employees didn't seem to be worried about having enough iPhones for the group which showed up at mid-day. There's no way to know how many potential early adopters might have gone home with an iPhone 4 this morning, but who will now have to wait for more available stock to arrive.

I now have a 32 GB iPhone 4 syncing with my Mac, thanks in large part to the efficiency and friendliness of the retail staff at my local Vodafone store, who handled the launch with brilliant professionalism. If their company's upper management had handled things half as well as the rank and file, I might not have needed to write this article in the first place.

Vodafone has shown utter contempt for its customers in its handling of this iPhone 4 launch debacle. It's 9:00 on the day the iPhone 4 was supposed to have launched down here as I write this, and there's been no statement, official or otherwise, from the company. Its twitter account, @vodafonenz, has been inundated with frantic and angry New Zealanders (myself included) begging Vodafone for the slightest bit of information. No word from Vodafone on why the iPhone is nowhere to be found anywhere within New Zealand -- not even at retail resellers, because other than Apple's website, Vodafone is New Zealand's sole distributor of iPhone hardware.

"Surely Apple's secrecy is to blame," a few have said. That theory might fly if Apple wasn't set to launch in sixteen other countries today, with Vodafone a carrier in several of those countries. Vodafone Australia released plan and handset pricing info earlier this week. So did Vodafone Italy, Hong Kong, and Ireland. But all New Zealand has got from Vodafone is a page offering the iPhone 3GS at the same cost as on its launch day over a year ago.

Since neither Vodafone nor Apple has bothered to comment on the matter, all we have to go on is two competing rumors. The first rumor: the iPhone isn't launching on time in New Zealand because of shipping delays. This rumor doesn't seem credible for multiple reasons. First, a July 16 e-mail from Vodafone sent to customers registering interest in the iPhone 4 promised, "We will be in contact again next week to give you more info on pricing for the iPhone 4 and when it will be available in New Zealand."

No such followup e-mail was sent, suggesting a problem far more serious than mere supply issues. Additionally, if it were something as simple as a delayed container ship, why would Vodafone remove all mention of the iPhone 4 from its website? Vodafone would also have nothing to gain and everything to lose in terms of customer perception by keeping its customers completely in the dark about a few days' or weeks' delay. Finally, none of the other 16 countries due to launch the iPhone 4 today are experiencing "supply issues" beyond the limited availability one would expect for the launch of such a high-profile, in-demand product. New Zealand is more remote than any of those other countries, but this is 2010, not 1910 -- any shipping delay which affects only us and not any of the other 16 countries can only mean a delay of a week or two at the outside.

The other rumor that's been gaining ground since last night, and which seems far more likely given the scant evidence at hand, is that Vodafone New Zealand has lost its distribution deal with Apple. The lack of comment from Apple or Vodafone, the disappearance of the iPhone from third-party resellers dependent on Vodafone's distribution, and the removal of all mention of the iPhone 4 from Vodafone's website all lend credence to this theory. The National Business Review notes it's received numerous e-mails from Vodafone with "F-bombs" directed toward Apple, but NBR doesn't provide any info beyond that.

Vodafone is (was?) the sole source of subsidized iPhones in New Zealand. We have multiple carriers here, all of which have networks compatible with Apple's handset, but until now only Vodafone has sold the iPhone at reduced prices. We have an advantage over countries like the US in that our iPhones are also sold at unsubsidized prices, fully unlocked and available for use on any carrier right out of the box, but the main disadvantage is that until now there's only been two distribution channels for the iPhone in New Zealand: Vodafone, and Apple's online store. Now it seems the only way to get an iPhone 4 in New Zealand for the foreseeable future will be through Apple directly, with no retailer in the entire country selling a subsidized iPhone 4 -- a situation that affects anywhere from 40,000 to 250,000 New Zealanders.

The price of an unsubsidized, 8 GB iPhone 3GS is NZ$899 (about US$650). No pricing info for the iPhone 4 is available as yet, but it's likely to be close to the old unsubsidized price for a 32 GB 3GS: NZ$1349 (US$977), or the same cost as a 64 GB, 3G-enabled iPad.

9:30pm -- Some New Zealanders have noted that iPhone 4 banner has returned to Vodafone NZ's website. I can't confirm this, as it's not showing up for me. Some Vodafone sources are claiming the launch will proceed at 12 PM today, with other (more reliable) sources saying the launch is definitely not happening today. Vodafone still has not made an official statement one way or the other on the matter other than statements on twitter from spokesman Paul Brislen.

In the end, that is the biggest issue with this entire train wreck of a "launch." If it's down to shipping delays, Vodafone NZ should have just come out and said so the moment they knew about it. If Apple and Vodafone's relationship has broken down and Vodafone won't be selling subsidized iPhones in NZ anymore, then one of the two companies should have had enough respect for customers to reveal this information before launch day. No matter who's to blame for this utter mess, it's Kiwi consumers who have lost out in the end. Not just because the iPhone 4 has vanished from our shores, but also because Vodafone, the company we were counting on to bring the iPhone 4 to us, has left its customers to twist in the wind and rely on rumor and speculation rather than hard data.

As for me, I'm really looking forward to having to rely on my "crippled by iOS 4" iPhone 3G for quite a while longer until someone gets their bloody act together with the iPhone 4.

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