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Smart Mobs, iPhone 3G, and AT&T’s Direct Fulfillment process

This is an iPhone post. I’d been waiting to replace my sometimes-barely functioning phone for a good while, so, like many others, I showed up at a local AT&T store on Friday in hopes of getting my iPhone. After spending an embarrassing amount of time in line, and shortly before getting to the front, we were told that the store was out. No problem, I’d place an order and get it when it shows up.

I didn’t think too much about it until a few days later when someone who ordered the same model and color phone at the same store several hours after me mentioned that their phone had shipped. Mine hadn’t, so the sequence of order fulfillment seemed a bit strange. Curious and confused, I turned to Google. This led me to several threads and blog posts discussing AT&T’s Direct Fulfillment system, the longest of which is a now 220-page thread on AT&T’s own customer support system. The discussion in this thread is interesting to me as a customer and as a student. Though the thread contains a bit of vitriol, misinformation, and even paranoia, the posters are able to work together to build a fairly coherent model of AT&T’s direct fulfillment process.

The thread starts out with questions about whether others have received their phones — customers’ questions that can help them calibrate their own expectations. Some eager customers soon noticed that in addition to checking their own order status, AT&T’s order status system allows users to view and track orders from others in their zip code by simply incrementing the order number in the URL. From this, users notice that some orders, placed after their own unshipped orders, have already shipped — is the system unfair somehow, or are some models just shipping sooner? The posters share information and anecdotes that confirm that at least some orders for the same model and color of phone are being posted out of order.

Elsewhere on the web, Greg de Vitry builds a tool that scrapes a range of order numbers and aggregates data from several users to count total daily shipments. The tool’s users see the tool’s shipment tally and begin questioning AT&T’s official statement that they are shipping tens of thousands of orders per day. Greg soon updates his tool to collect model numbers, which again confirms that orders are not being shipped according to first-in-first-out. As more users enter their information, it becomes plausible (if not likely) that forum readers and users of the tool have a better overview of the direct fulfillment process than many of AT&T’s own frontline employees.

The thread’s users eventually begin to seek media attention, hoping that if they expose the number of unshipped orders and haphazard fashion in which they are being filled, Apple and AT&T will be embarrassed enough to ship them their phones faster or compensate them. Users post to CNN’s iReport and email Fox News.

In addition to sharing information, the thread’s posters are telling jokes, commiserating together, and wishing each other luck. The conversation feels very similar to the conversations in the line outside of the AT&T store on Friday, except the forum posters have more diversity in information and can share it with the entire virtual line much more easily than they could with the local lines.

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