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Wednesday, May 13, 2009, 11:00 am PT (02:00 pm ET)

Apple now selling iPhones online in bid to clear inventory

In the latest sign that iPhone season is rapidly approaching and inventories of existing models need a push out the door, Apple is now offering to sell customers an iPhone 3G through its website and ship it out for free.

The move is an extension of the Cupertino-based company's Buy iPhone website, which until recently offered customers the option to pre-approving themselves for a AT&T wireless account, select a calling plan, and then driving down to their local Apple Store to pick up their newly reserved handset.

In an update to the site discovered this week, Apple now says customers can "order directly from the Apple Online Store and have your new iPhone shipped free to your door." Pricing remains the same at $199 for the 8GB model and $299 for the 16GB model.

The offer, which is available to new AT&T subscribers, is noteworthy given that Apple made a point of halting online sales of the handset when it transitioned to the iPhone 3G from the original iPhone. The move was designed to help stifle the grey market for iPhones, which thrived off people buying the phones in bulk in the U.S., unlocking them from AT&T's network, and then exporting them overseas.

With the iPhone now offered in approximately 80 countries, new models expected in the next few months, and billing information now required online, Apple appears to be tapping the popularity and connivence of its online store to help rid its warehouses of any overstock ahead of those new models.

Marketing chief Phil Schiller has made no secret that Apple plans to refresh its iPhone family of handsets each year, specifying June as the time when customers should put an ear out for news on the latest advancements.

Apple is currently beta testing iPhone Software 3.0, which is expected to ship on any new handsets the company announces this spring. It's promised the software for a "summer" release.