Why AT&T Sold Out of iPhone So Quickly; And Apple Didn't

Since Sunday's blog reports of widespread iPhone pre-order sell-outs, and hand-wringing by Apple faithful that their pockets would remain empty of the new 3GS because of pre-order mania, several of you have written in to school me as to why. And it's a fascinating look at the relationship between Apple and its carrier and its other distribution partners.

New iPhone 3GS
Source: Apple
New iPhone 3GS

The question arose: AT&T and Best Buy both say their pre-order Apple iPhone 3GS inventory has sold out. But if you go to the Apple website and order the phone online, as I reported early yesterday, shoppers can still arrange to receive their phone at an Apple store on Friday, or have the phone shipped free for delivery on Friday. No shortage if you go directly to the source. (Though I'm told even if you take shipment of the phone on Friday, you'll still have to go to a store to activate it.)

So why the disconnect between AT&T stores and Apple stores when it comes to iPhone? Could there be some nefarious machinations operating in the background?

Several of you have told me to follow the money. When AT&T employees sell iPhones with the corresponding mandatory data plan, the AT&T employee gets a commission. Those commissions can certainly add up from day of launch and the few months following the launch as eager early adopters snap up the new handsets. When you multiply those commissions across hundreds of AT&T workers and hundreds of thousands of phones sold, pretty soon you're talking real money.

So, some of you have suggested that AT&T only gets a short supply of new iPhones by design. AT&T lets Apple sell the phones online and in its stores. Lets Best Buy sell the phones in its stores. The phones get sold, AT&T saves on those expensive commissions, and enjoys all those new, pricey data subscription sign-ups anyway. One of you characterized it as a great example of having your cake and eating it, too! "A carefully choreographed dance," says one of you, even as consumers trip over themselves to get their hands on the newest 3GS as early as possible.

    • RIM Likely to Report Steady Growth For Quarter

I've left messages with AT&T to ask about all this. Still waiting to hear back. But the analysts I'm talking to say this makes a whole lot of sense.

Lesson: Forget the middleman. If you want an iPhone, go to the source.

Questions? Comments? TechCheck@cnbc.com