Any person can own a piece of shiny Apple gear, and every person who decides to buy in will pay the same high prices for admission to the club. That’s equal opportunity exploitation, and it defines Apple’s brand cachet, along with the company’s consumer-friendly, easy-to-grok retail experience.
But with new AT&T stipulations announced Tuesday regarding the pricing and policies of iPhone 3G plans, many would-be buyers of the newly upgraded Apple device are shaking their heads in dismay. This time around, AT&T has set some new rules, and they’re not exactly one-price-fits-all or comprehensible. Apple customers old and new are about to say goodbye to the sheltered Apple retail experience of yore and will now face the reality of the cellular carrier business through AT&T. Apple’s been in the business of simplifying things for consumers for years. This is hardly AT&T’s claim to fame.
Does Apple really want to get in bed with a company (AT&T) and an industry (telecom) known for dissembling, price-gouging, complicating, and confusing consumers?
It’s hard to fault AT&T for raising basic prices on iPhone 3G service plans: After all, 3G networks cost more money to build and operate, and it is natural that some of that cost would get passed on to consumers. iPhone 3G plans now start at $70 for 450 minutes (this includes unlimited data and Internet usage). But here’s where the natural price increases stop.
This new basic iPhone 3G plan includes no text messages. Text messages, light data bits which cost relatively little for a carrier to whip around its network, were included on last year’s AT&T iPhone plan. Text message plans now range from an extra $5 to $30 per month. What was once free is now rather expensive. This is akin to Apple jacking up prices for iTunes tracks, or suddenly charging for once-free podcasts. Apple just wouldn’t do it.
The most egregious act committed by AT&T, and one in which Apple is actually complicit, is the announcement that the iPhone 3G is not universally priced at $199/$299. Steve Jobs shouted from his keynote mountain top on June 9 that the new iPhone will cost $199/$299. While restrictions and caveats were always a possibility, they were never explicitly mentioned. On July 1, AT&T confirmed what few Apple-watchers had predicted: The cheap price is not for everybody.
The cheap price, according to AT&T, requires not only a two-year contract, but a qualifying upgrade status. If you don’t qualify, you pay $399/$499 instead. Who doesn’t qualify? Good question. AT&T doesn’t exactly make its upgrade eligibility requirements very straightforward (so totally, shamefully, “un-Apple”). Here’s the company’s upgrades policy: “Device offers are made available from time to time based on a number of factors: service tenure, spending levels, payment history, usage practices and other factors.”
If you have an AT&T account, you can log-in to your account page on the company’s Web site and find out if you are eligible. So far, reports from AT&T customers suggest that people who’ve renewed a contract in the last 18 months are not eligible to buy the subsidized iPhone 3G.
Of course, new AT&T customers qualify for the cheaper iPhone 3G. But AT&T has also created another class of customer. Original iPhone (not 3G) owners have clout and status above regular people in AT&T’s world. If you bought the first-gen iPhone, you are privileged to buy the new iPhone at the discounted price. Apple isn’t typically in the business of creating first-class, special-rewards, or frequent-buyer programs. It’s not a classy, high-end thing to do. But Apple isn’t in charge here.
And it is hard to image Apple ever allowing for the possibility of this kind of nonsensical loop-hole: AT&T customers who’ve recently renewed a contract could conceivably cancel their contracts (usually less than $200 for the cancelation fee), then create a new account with AT&T and sign up for a subsidized iPhone. Doing this might actually cost less than paying $399/$499 for the unsubsidized iPhone 3G.
AT&T has left several frequently-asked-questions un-answered on its handy-dandy tip sheet. The company shows how an iPhone 3G family plan works, but chooses not to explain how a family plan involving iPhones and also non-iPhones would operate (and how much they would cost). There are price increases here, too: Traditional AT&T family plans require a $10 fee for adding an additional line. Adding an iPhone costs $40.
But what happens if you attempt to create a family plan that already has text messages bundled in, as well as shared minutes and data, and you toss an iPhone 3G into the mix? Can the iPhone 3G line use some of the bundled text message without paying for its own? AT&T chooses not to answer, and Apple certainly won’t weigh in. Doubtless, there are dozens of similar questions about plans and rates.
These types of nitty-gritty questions are, frankly, beneath Apple’s notice. Apple doesn’t want to touch all of this messy pricing stuff with a ten-foot pole, but by not actively involving itself in the policy details of the sale of its own forthcoming phone, it might begin to lose the high customer-service marks and relatively polished brand image it has cultivated in recent years.
Last year, Apple controlled the retail experience by offering consumers an easy way to activate their iPhones with an AT&T plan via iTunes software. That convenient experience courtesy Apple is now gone, as well, leaving AT&T to run Apple’s customers through a meat-grinder of a purchasing system that has always catered to the lowest common denominator.
AT&T, in its press releases, leaves much unsaid. You can buy an iPhone from an AT&T store come 8 a.m., July 11. But wait, can’t we also buy an iPhone from an Apple store at the same time? Right? AT&T doesn’t say. Neither does Apple. Confusion ensues. Confusion isn’t good for consumers thinking about dropping hundreds of dollars on a device and a monthly subscription. And it certainly isn’t good for Apple, either.
What about the currently available info on iPhone 3G pricing and plans seems unfair or confusing to you? Which of your questions haven’t been answered with the kind of clarity you expect? We invite you to share your gripes in the comments section below.