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Apple’s iPhone availability widget, a page on Apple’s website, appears whenever there’s a shortage of iPhones at Apple’s stores. The widget shows which stores have which models in stock, on a state-by-state basis.

Over the weekend, many stores flipped from green to red on some or all iPhone models. The Century City store in Los Angeles, for example, is completely out of iPhones according to the widget.

It’s become a pattern. Last year, 17 states ran out of iPhones when the iPhone 3G debuted. The current shortage isn’t as bad, but it demonstrates the difficulty of selling consumer appliances in stores. Apple’s logistics experts no doubt put a lot of time into calculating how many phones to send to each store.

Now they may be juggling units behind the scenes to match the current patterns of demand, or to keep flagship stores in stock. The Fifth Avenue store in midtown Manhattan has green lights across the board, as does San Francisco’s Union Square store. But the less-prominent location on Chestnut Street was down to a few white 3G SD models as of last night.

Rumormongers like to believe these shortages are manufactured, to make the phones seem more popular than they are. That’s ridiculous. “Out of stock” are the three worst words in the world to any retailer, even Apple. A shortage of iPhones right now is only good for Palm.

p.s. If you’re planning to buy a phone in person, don’t rely on the widget. Pick up your non-iPhone and call the store.

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