Thoughts on the iPhone Upgrade Program, and Buying iPhones in General

Apple created an unequal system for iPhone pre-orders.

I fully admit that this is not an earth shattering problem, but the sheer amount of people asking me to elaborate have caused me to pen this post.

As those of you who follow me on Twitter know, I was rather upset by the ordering process for iPhones this year.

When the iPhone Upgrade Program came out, it was the first year I was needing to upgrade two devices at once, and thus I was glad for the low initial cost of the program. I also had a guess: Apple being Apple, was going to treat the customers of the iPhone Upgrade Program as VIPs when it came to the next year. After all, a huge selling point for the program was getting a new iPhone when a new iPhone was released — the closest Apple has ever come to assuring everyone of yearly iPhone updates.

A ton of people didn’t get the program because they just wanted to see how it worked out. They were smart, because as it turns out, Apple still doesn’t have a clue what they are doing with the program.

The Problems

Apple gave upgrade program users an abysmal amount of information when the new iPhone was launched — even after reading everything provided, I wasn’t sure what was going to transpire when pre-orders started. (There’s of course a stupid lawsuit around this already, but forget about that bullshit.)

Here’s what I knew going into pre-ordering:

  • I had to check eligibility for upgrade (the program isn’t get a new iPhone when one comes out, it’s get a new iPhone every 12 months from the date you joined the program — an important distinction).
  • I would have to go into the store to get my iPhone and reapply for the program.

Both of those things are annoying, but ok, perhaps this will be fine.

The shit show started as soon as I got to the ordering page. If I wanted an iPhone on day one, which is the top priority for me and my wife, I could only pick between Silver/Gold/Rose Gold models in 32gb or 128gb for the 7 Plus. No black models, no 256GB models. Meaning, that right away I wasn’t getting what I wanted, and Apple was going to lose money (since I had top of the line the year before and now was unable to get that).

This is beyond annoying for someone who ordered in the first 15 minutes — but doubly so for someone who is also paying for the Upgrade Program and being forced to come into the store. Because here’s the thing: I was constrained by the devices at my store, not the actual supply. So many people I know who ordered paying the “normal” way, got a black model in 256GB after I ordered, which arrived, or will arrive very close to launch day.

And that’s the fucking problem.

Not that they ran out, it’s that they still had stock when I ordered, but I was blocked from getting it. I didn’t even get an estimate on how long I would have to wait to get the black model, or if that would push back my upgrade cycle in future years. There was a mess in my hands where I was making gut decisions and not informed ones, because there was just no way to get properly informed and still get the new iPhone on day one.

Let’s list this, because it is messy:

  1. The existing Upgrade Program customers had only one option: to come into their local store to get a new device. New customers to the program could get going online.
  2. From only anecdotal evidence, it appears that Upgrade Program customers were limited to the choices at that store instead of being limited to the actual overall supply, as most everyone else is.
  3. The Upgrade Program isn’t an unsecured line of credit (as it is when you do installments on a Mac), it is actually a loan secured to the physical good (I am pretty certain on this, so think credit card versus auto loan) and that is why you turn in your old device and open a new credit account for the new device.
  4. The people in the store were wildly untrained to handle the upgrade program. While still working quickly and being nice, they just simply did not know what to expect — which is not what anyone wants when they are getting credit. So not only could I not get information on pre-order day, but while in the store everyone was operating on the “let’s see if this will work or not” method.
  5. You don’t get a new device every time a new iPhone comes out, you are eligible for a new device every 12 months. Sign up a month after the new iPhone is out, you will be forever stuck in the loop of getting your new device a month later. This is stupid. Not only is it problematic for those who don’t sign up on launch day, but in my situation too. Because you open a new credit account with each upgrade, if I had decided to wait for a Jet Black model to upgrade, I would be deciding to wait again next year for a new iPhone, and the year after that, and the year after that, and the year after that, and so forth. (Small update: I mean without penalty. You can upgrade after 6 months but have to then pay an early termination fee of sorts.)

That’s the five biggest issues with the program, but there are many more I could point out — like the fundamental lack of clear, no-bullshit, explanation from Apple on how everything was going to work before the pre-order.

Fairness and Equality

The crux of the problem is that for the first time in the history of iPhone launches — the launch was not an equal playing field. Buying a new iPhone has always been fair, because no matter what, everyone has to go through the same process at the same time to try and get what they want — and they all pay the same amount of money (more or less, exchanges rates are tricky). Everyone starts trying to order at 12am PST, which isn’t fair for Eastern timezone people, but it is absolutely equal. And it is that equality of ordering which has always made the process fair.

This year the ordering was not fair to Upgrade Program customers because (for the reasons above) the process was not equal.

That’s as plain as it can be said — Apple took one of the most equal playing fields for one of the years hottest devices and took a select group of people and made it harder for them to get the devices they want. This isn’t some injustice worthy of marching on the Cupertino, but it is worth pointing out for the sake of preventing it from happening again. The pre-ordering game was simply weighted against Upgrade Program customers.

Next Year

Unless Apple clearly outlines how the upgrades will work next year, I’ll be ordering through my carrier — because amazingly they are more transparent than Apple when it comes to buying a new iPhone each year. And even if Apple outlines everything, they are going to need to make a lot of changes to the program if they want me to continue with it.

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