AT&T misses another iPhone opportunity

This week, Apple announced that for the first time you will be able to get a free iPhone with a 2-year contract.

The “catch”? The iPhone is the 3GS (not the 4 or 4s).

Now if you are someone who regularly reads tech websites and who thinks it’s perfectly logical to stand in line for hours to get the newest iPhone (or to get up in the middle of the night to order one online), then the iPhone 3GS might seem like a relic to you. But for the millions of cell phone users who don’t have smartphones, the iPhone 3GS would be a great purchase.

The hardware is excellent, and it supports AT&T’s 3G network. no, it doesn’t do “4G” — but for most Americans, we don’t live anywhere with 4G coverage anyway; people looking for a free smartphone probably aren’t going to care about 4G, if they even know what it is. Subjectively speaking, my wife actually prefers the 3GS because she says the curved back fits better in her hand.

The iPhone 3GS has a bigger App Store than Android or Windows Phone alternatives. When Apple releases iOS 5 in a few days, the 3GS users will be able to upgrade to it, free of charge.

all told, it’s a great phone, and in the USA it is only available on AT&T because Verizon didn’t have the iPhone until version 4. It is now available for free (with the same 2 year contract you’re going to be stuck with anywhere).

You might think that AT&T would want to grab this opportunity to let people know about this great offer. You might think that, assuming that you haven’t watched AT&T bungle nearly every opportunity the iPhone has given it.

The latest example arrived today: an email from AT&T with the Subject: “Huge online selections of free phones from AT&T!” Because I am, at heart, an optimist, I thought “Oh, they are going to start promoting the free iPhone deal.”

I was wrong.

inside the email, there are 3 phones shown (see screenshot above). The first two have tiny, hardware keyboards, and the third (in the background) shows something that looks like an iPhone knockoff but with rounded sides.

no picture of the iPhone 3GS.

no mention of the iPhone 3GS.

They mention “Apple” as one of the manufacturers, but they don’t use the name “iPhone” at all. The best-known smartphone brand in the world, and AT&T doesn’t even mention it. They can make a “free iPhone” offer that no one else in the USA can make, and they didn’t make it.

If you wanted to be extremely generous, maybe you would want to say that the email had a limited amount of space for the image, so they couldn’t fit the iPhone into the picture. But even if you click through to the “shop now and save” link, the resulting page doesn’t show the iPhone 3GS at all.

Frankly, I don’t know if AT&T is purposefully downplaying the iPhone, or whether they want to push people towards the iPhone 4 or 4S if they want “an iPhone” or if they just plain blew an opportunity to promote an advantage that they have over Verizon and Sprint. But I know which one I’d go with if I had to guess.