Apple resumes iPhone reservation system as supplies shrink

Uses a variant of 2011's reservation-only retail sales system for the iPhone 5 in the U.S., U.K, and other countries

Apple reopened a reservation program today for iPhone 5 retail sales, telling customers it's their best chance of scoring a new smartphone anytime soon.

The company's website informed customers in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Japan and Hong Kong that an iPhone 5 could be reserved online from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. local time.

Users select a carrier and iPhone 5 model, but then must wait for an email telling them that one is actually available before heading to a nearby Apple retail store the next day for pick-up.

Customers in other countries where the iPhone 5 debuted last week -- Australia, France, Germany and Singapore -- do not yet have access to a reservation system, however. Singapore lacks an Apple retail store, but the others have several.

Last year, Apple used a similar reservation scheme, but showed which models of the iPhone 4S were in stock at specific Apple stores. This time, users won't know if a phone is available until they receive the notification email from Apple.

"Limited quantities may also be available for in-store pick-up on a first-come, first-served basis," Apple said on its site.

Over the years, Apple has become less transparent about whether its retail stores have iPhones in stock. At one time, Apple posted a page that listed all stores' inventory, but stopped that practice. And last year, the reservation system showed customers inventory at specific stores. Even that is no longer available.

Analysts have blamed the iPhone 5's display module as the primary suspect for shortages, noting that the phone uses "in-cell" technology for the first time. In-cell does away with a separate touch-sensitive layer under the glass and instead integrates sensors into the liquid-crystal display (LCD) itself.

Yesterday, Brian White of Topeka Capital Markets called the display the "gatekeeper" of supply.

Apple has acknowledged shortages. On Monday, CEO Tim Cook boasted of record first-weekend sales for the iPhone 5, but admitted that the company had already blown through its initial stock.

The iPhone 5 went on sale Sept. 21 at Apple's retail stores and other outlets in nine countries, two more than last year. Apple plans to roll out the phone in another 28 countries -- six more than in 2011 -- on Friday, Sept. 28, and to a total of 100 by the end of the year.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

Read more about smartphones in Computerworld's Smartphones Topic Center.

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