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This week’s episode is part rant, part How-to, and part customer service failure, as I take you through my special experience when switching cell phone carriers.

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Transfer contacts Samsung to iPhone

When you’re just a kid, your mom tells you you’re special. That there’s nobody else in the entire world like you. And as I stood in line, speaking to the hapless worker behind the AT&T counter – telling my story, again – I was beginning to think that, well, that just may be true. Somehow, some way, I was the most unique mobile cell phone customer on the entire planet, and not a single person at AT&T, Sprint, Apple, Best Buy, or the vast expanse of the entire world wide web could solve my problem.

It was the weekend of July 12, and for fans of the Apple iPhone, it was truly Christmas in July. I had held off purchasing the original model, but for the past six months I had subscribed to 3 different iPhone RSS feeds, soaking in every rumor and secret screenshot, and was ready to get my hands on a gleaming new iPhone 3G.

This story is not about my quest to get the actual phone, although it could be. I bailed out on a 4-hour line at the 5th Avenue store in Manhattan that Friday night, was told inventory was sold out at an AT&T store on Saturday morning, arrived too late to get in line at the Apple Store again on Saturday night, but finally clutched the device in my hands after a 2 ½ hour wait at the Soho store on Sunday afternoon. The phone itself was mine.

My story is about what I thought was a very, very simple question.

Boy was I wrong…

My question was simply:

How do I get the 250 contacts on my Sprint phone to my iPhone?

That’s it. I have phone numbers on my old phone.
I want them on my new phone.
That’s it.

Now this rant is not so much about finding the final answer, which I did.

No, what this rant is about, is that no one – no one! – was able to give me a definitive answer to my question.

Trust me, in my former life I’ve been a software support rep that has answered 10,000 tech calls, I’ve gotten my hands dirty removing and installing motherboards and video cards in old PCs, and I’m stubborn enough to finesse the “concatenate” feature in Excel in order to build a repetitive list of HTML. I don’t give up easily on tech problems.

It just blew me away that no one had an answer for this question.

Let’s look at the back of the envelope numbers.

1) Just on opening weekend, when I was buying my phone, Apple sold ONE MILLION iPhones worldwide.

That’s just those three days. Nevermind that more 4 million people already have the original version.

2) Sprint is the # 3 US carrier behind AT&T and Verizon, with about 53 million subscribers. But in the first quarter of 2008, they lost 1.1 million of those users.

In trying to find more data, a mobile phone industry article on Bloomberg.com last year had analysts predicting that Verizon would lose over 900,000 users to the new iPhone, and Sprint would be even harder hit because there users are younger and more tech-savvy.

What I’m trying to say is this:

Apple is selling millions and millions of iPhones on AT&T. Those customers have to be coming from somewhere. So it’s probably safe to say that hundreds of thousands of people had a Sprint phone, and now have an iPhone.

I’ve got to guess that most of those people had a bunch of contacts in their old phone that they wanted to bring to their new one.

Yet when I asked reps not at one… but at FOUR companies… companies whose job it is to process tens of thousands of phone orders every single day, the simple question of

How do I get my contacts from my old phone to my new one, not one of them knew the answer off the top of their head.

I knew the general issue… my Sprint phone was a little old. It was the Samsung SPH-A880.

But c’mon, it came out in 2005. We’re not talking the Motorola StarTac here. It could take video. It could connect to the net. It didn’t have Bluetooth, but it was a solid phone.

Apple Mac Address Book

The other basic issue is that it used CDMA technology, which means it didn’t have a SIM card. It wasn’t that I was going from phone to phone… I needed to go from the Sprint phone, to a computer format that I could get into Apple’s Contacts Address Book.

I looked up mobile phone transfer cables on Amazon that went from phone to USB. But there were never any reviews that said if it actually worked.

I checked the Sprint website, which had the question about transferring mobile phone data. But it was talking about Microsoft ActiveSync on WindowsCE devices. No deal, Howie.

Of course the last option was manually entering all my contacts into the computer. Even if I cut out all my ex-girlfriends, I’d still have a sizable amount. So while some friends put up compelling arguments that I should pare down the list to just the 10 or 20 people I call on a regular basis, it was a challenge now.

Let’s see what some of them said:

Spent at least an hour Googling and searching for some kind of step by step answer. While there were vague instructions that pointed me in various directions, no single site had enough solid evidence that they knew what they were talking about.

Apple Store Fifth Avenue

Apple Rep, 5th Avenue Store:
‘You need to do that through Sprint’

Sprint Store Rep 1, 23rd Street:
‘We don’t do that, you have to check with AT&T’

Sprint Store Rep2, Midtown:
This guy was very cocky… seemed very tech savvy… he said he could absolutely do it for me, for free, just wait a few minutes. During the downtime, he gave me the hard sell on the Samsung Instinct. Very good salesman. Alas, not so good tech rep. After hooking various wires into my old phone, he returned to the counter to proclaim, we can only bring contacts FROM AT&T to Sprint, not the other way around.

AT&T Logo

AT&T Store, Union Square:
We can do that, but you need to have a thumb drive we can copy the files to. I eagerly told them I had a thumb drive on my right there! Then another guy comes over to say, you need to BUY a thumb drive FROM them… that they can’t use one from a customer, because it accesses their network and could have a virus. I say I’ll return.

AT&T Store, Times Square:
They say I need to go the AT&T reseller store near Bryant Park. They can definitely help me. I arrive there and am greeted by 20-30 angry people on their lunch hour, and was told there was an hour-plus wait. I ask the guy, can you transfer from my Sprint phone to an AT&T phone. He says yes. I look around, and decide there’s no way I’m sitting there more than an hour. I say I’ll come back. And repeat… so you guarantee you can get my contacts, from my Sprint phone, to my new iPhone. Oh no, he says… not the iPhone. Sorry.

Apple Store, Soho
We can’t do that here. You have to bring it to Sprint or AT&T.

Best Buy Logo

BestBuy Store, 5th Avenue
Rep # 1 at the mobile counter says that Jason is the guy to ask. He can do it. But sorry, Jason’s at lunch. Come back later. I come back later and he’s not there. The friendly girl at the mobile counter really wants to help. Go talk to the Geek Squad guys. THOSE are the guys you need to talk to. They can help you out. So I wander to the Geek Squad guys. Oh no, they say. We can’t do that. You should ask at the mobile counter. This is starting to make me equally mad and determined.

Sprint Logo

Sprint representative 1, phone support
At first, she says no, you can’t do that. We continue to talk, and then she changes her tune. Well, you can do that with our automated backup service. It’s $5 a month. Well, I’ve already left Sprint, can I just pay you $5 and have you download my contacts and email them to me? Oh no, can’t do that.

Sprint representative 2 (Rayna), phone support
‘Take it into the AT&T store.’
Me: They told me to take it to you guys
‘Then you have to go to Sprint store.’
Do you know how the process works?
‘They hook it up to a machine.’

AT&T representative, phone support
11pm ET. We’re closed. Wha wha what? Their customer support closes down?

So how does it end?
How do you transfer contacts from an old Sprint phone to the new iPhone.

Option 1.
I ultimately made my way back to Best Buy because I had a good feeling about Jason. I could see right away that he was a tech geek molded in my own image. One that viewed my story not as another pain in the ass customer on his shift, but as a knowledgeable but frustrated kindred spirit with a technical challenge to be solved. In the end, they had a black box sitting behind the counter, which they claimed cost $5,000.

He then shocked me when he reached down and pulled out a slick, jet-black attaché case. As he flipped open the dual clasps with his thumbs and opened it, I’d have bet money that sitting inside, nestled in custom fitting foam, would be a high-powered rifle, which he would then calmly assemble: the part that rests against your shoulder, the barrel, the magazine filled with hollow-tipped bullets, the scope, and some kind of silencer. He would then brush past me and open fire on Lenny in Home Audio, who he never really liked anyway.

But alas, what laid inside was an assortment of cables to fit various phones. After he thumbed through and picked out the one for my model, he plugged my phone to the machine, the machine to my thumb drive, and copied my files in under a minute. Not wanting to challenge his technical prowess, but still skeptical, I walked over to a PC, inserted the thumb drive, and saw all my contacts and their numbers neatly listed.

The cost? He said they charge $20 for the service (hey, they have to pay off that $5 grand somehow), but he entered some phantom discount code for 30% off and let me out of there for $14 flat.

There were a few more steps as I saved the file (which was in HTML format) into and text file and imported it into Excel, then exported that to CSV, and imported it into the Contacts application on my Mac.

The final step was simply syncing my iPhone via iTunes, and voila, my contacts were now free to be spun through on my happy new device with the flick of a finger.

Migrate Content to iPhone

Option 2.
While in the Apple store this weekend, I chatted up one of the reps and got some advanced shortcuts for podcast editing in GarageBand. Sensing another tech guru, I posed the question to him. He walked over to the software section, grabbed a box off the shelf, and plopped down Data Pilot’s ‘Migrate Content to iPhone’ program.

I opened up the box, and this appeared to be a consumer-level version of Best Buy’s black box, containing software and 9 data cables to match up with your phone. Where were they when I needed them? Of course, their $60 price tag would have meant setting up a table in front of the Apple store, charging $10 a pop to befuddled Sprint customers.

Whoops… I’ve got to run. It’s my mom calling to tell me how special I am.

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