Friday night, as I was getting home, I noticed the iPhone had no service. I waited a bit, turned it off (hold the power button, then swipe to confirm), then rebooted it a few times (hold down power & home buttons, but Settings:General:Reset All Settings would have been easier). Both before and after I let iTunes Restore everything, the iPhone failed to activate.

Activation is critical -- without AT&T activation, the iPhone blocks access to most of its features. This is why people are so interested in non-AT&T activation hacks, and one reason the iPod touch is interesting for so many folks -- lots of people asked for a non-AT&T iPhone, and due to AT&T's 5-year exclusive contract for iPhones in the US, you can't even (officially) use an iPhone's non-cellular capabilities without paying AT&T. This is part of Apple's contract with AT&T -- there's no reason you couldn't do everything except voice calling & SMS purely over 802.11, and those could be managed through gateways and VoIP. This exclusive contract may also be why Apple has restricted the touch's access to "iPhone" features like email -- either due to restrictions on what communications features Apple is allowed to put in pocket-sized devices, or as a concession to AT&T while the touch cannibalizes some iPhone sales and AT&T revenues.

Anyway, I wondered how both cellular and 802.11 radios could have gone out at the same time -- I normally have 5/5 bars for AT&T + E for EDGE and 3/3 for WiFi in our apartment, and now I had "No Service" in the wireless status area. I couldn't figure out how this could happen. It couldn't be a software problem, because a fresh Restore of the same 1.0.2 image I activated on Monday night was not working. Reading about "No Service", I discovered the 802.11 radio is disabled because the phone isn't activated.

I called AT&T Customer Service Saturday morning. They transferred me to Apple (automatically, for iPhone support), and the Apple rep told me AT&T's activation server was down. Apparently they knew about this, but did not have an ETA for it coming back up. He suggested I call AT&T, and I declined. So the Apple rep called AT&T, and failed to get an ETA for repairs.

I called AT&T again Saturday afternoon, and spoke to 2 AT&T reps. The first was quite nice, but quite surprised their "activation server" was down, and that she hadn't heard about it. She tried to walk me through downloading Apple's Activation QuickTime movie, telling me to click "Go Pro" to get QuickTime Pro, etc. I explained that I didn't need a tutorial on how to activate (I had already done this -- the only thing for to do at this point was plug it into the Mac) and asked her to call Apple to find out what was wrong with the activation server (since they seemed to have a handle on the problem, if not a timeframe for resolution). After a while, instead of conferencing in Apple, she transferred me to a second AT&T rep.

The second rep was also nice, but no better informed. She did call Apple, but didn't really understand what was going on. From what she relayed to me, I believe all iPhones are activated by iTunes (which would make sense -- it shouldn't be substantially tougher than DRMing AAC tracks). Obviously the iTunes system needs to tie into an AT&T database to access the customer records, since AT&T handles billing, phone numbers, porting, etc. Apparently AT&T scheduled some downtime starting on Friday afternoon, and was caught unprepared when they discovered that Apple was depending on this unavailable service to process iPhone activations. I was told AT&T expected it to be back up by 4am Monday morning. It took me a while to understand why the AT&T rep kept telling me that a) activations are handled by Apple, and b) AT&T (as opposed to Apple) expected to have the systems back online by 4am.

She asked if I had gotten email from AT&T, saying I might have gotten a manual activation procedure via email. I explained that I'd gotten a few emails welcoming me to AT&T, and telling me my number started with 347 (that was true for less than 24 hours -- I got the phone Monday evening and got my RU cellular number ported Tuesday afternoon) and one offering me a free ringtone through AT&T MEdia Net (which the iPhone cannot use). There was also a message from "Cingular" in my spam folder, but it wasn't about activation. She then told me she's just confirmed I never got any manual activation message, and wasn't going to.

The sad irony here is that a wipe and reinstall is supposed to be the guaranteed fix. In this case, due to the way Apple implemented their exclusivity clause, the "fix" created an officially insurmountable problem -- nobody at Apple or AT&T can activate my phone right now, and the various third-party efforts are likely to be blocked in the future and might fall afoul of the DMCA (although I believe the cellular companies managed to disgust the US government enough to earn a special exemption for cellphone unlockers).

I definitely had a strange (non-activation) problem Friday night, but at this point my iPhone could be perfectly fine and useless because activation (AT&T's equivalent of copy protection) is broken. I probably won't know until Monday -- hopefully I won't have to get the iPhone replaced at an Apple Store.

On a side note, I'm displeased that Nullriver's excellent AppTapp Installer.app and all its packages are now missing after Restore from iTunes. I don't know if my configuration changes are there, just not the software. Since I'm likely to have to wipe the iPhone again, it's not worth re-hacking & re-configuring the iPhone yet -- and it's pretty useless without network connectivity.