Why wait in line for an iPhone?

SOMEWHERE IN LINE—I did something this week that I’ve never done before: I camped out on the sidewalk all night waiting in line for the new iPhone.

The iPhone 4S became available in Apple stores and elsewhere Friday in the U.S., Canada, Australia, the U.K., France, Germany and Japan.

Long lines formed at Apple stores in all these countries. But one unique feature of the line I was in is that the guy at the front of it was Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. He arrived at noon to be first.

(I happen to live in the same Silicon Valley town as Woz. Here’s a short interview I filmed on my now-obsolete iPhone 4.)

One unique aspect of all the iPhone 4S lines this time around is that each Apple store still has impromptu tributes to the late CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs—flowers, candles, apples and sticky notes.

But the idea of queuing up for an Apple product is not unique. Every time Apple launches a new iPhone or iPad , lines form at Apple stores all over the world.

I hit the sidewalk at about 4 p.m. the night before (the doors opened at 8 a.m.), which put me as the seventh person in line. So it was 16 hours of waiting. My son and I brought chairs, books and gadgets to kill the time. We spent most of the evening chatting with other line dwellers, including Woz, about everything from Apple products to Steve Jobs to Dancing with the Stars.

It’s a strange practice, this standing in line business. After all, the option to pre-order became available last week. Apple claims to have sold more than a million pre-ordered iPhones by noon on the first day. Those pre-ordered phones should have arrived by Friday morning via mail. And even though current supplies are limited, the phones will become easily (and conveniently) available in large numbers in a few weeks to anyone who just saunters into any Apple store.

Whenever there’s a big Apple product release, crowds flock to the Apple Store, as they did Friday at the store on Walnut Street in Philadelphia.

Why do Apple fans all over the world do this? Why am I doing it? And why would Wozniak, who as co-founder could have had a free case of iPhones delivered a month ago with a simple phone call?

Critics have their own theories. Apple fans are crazy, deluded, pathetic and/or stupid, for example. But dismissing the phenomenon is too easy, and not particularly accurate.

First, and most obvious, human beings have enthusiasms. It’s human nature. Some people go to dog shows. Other people line up for a chance to see their favorite singers or movie stars. People travel halfway across North America to attend Comicon, the Oshkosh air show or, say, the CrossFit games. Some people are car nerds. Other people are Lego nerds. Still others are food nerds.

Apple fans are nerd nerds, the most concentrated brand.

An Apple launch serves as a local event for expressing and indulging enthusiasm for consumer electronics in general and the newest Apple thing in particular.

Another reason to wait in line, as I discovered by grilling a few line mates, is that many here have an unusual appreciation for the achievement represented by a new device like the iPhone 4S. While some expected more—specifically something with the number “5” carved into it—the latest iPhone is arguably the greatest gadget ever made.

It may be surpassed by the next Android launch. It will surely be bested by the next iPhone. But at this moment, I would argue that no better or more impressive consumer electronics product has ever been built.

Modern smartphones are marvels of engineering, miniaturization and feature integration. It’s possible to be blase about smart phones, but only if you fail to understand the breathtaking advancements that go into each new generation of handsets.

The people in the iPhone lines are much more impressed than average about how great the phones are. And they express their appreciation by staying up all night to get their hands on one ASAP.

Plus, it’s fun. This is my first all-night Apple line. I’ve discovered that it’s an enjoyable social event. It’s a party, really. The press is here. Everyone is chatting, eating food, playing games and using the gadgets they bought the last time they waited in such a line. Waiting in line all night for a new iWhatever is more fun than sleeping.

It’s also worth noting that Apple launches are relatively rare. While the extended global Android ecosystem pumps out a new handset every week, it seems, new iPhones come out just once or twice a year. At any given time, there are dozens of most-current Android phones, and even, say, BlackBerry phones. But there’s always only one current iPhone. So when it comes out, it’s a big deal.

Thousands of Apple fans around the world find plenty of good reasons to queue up all night to better their chances of getting their mitts on the newest iGadget. However, this particular launch comes with additional reasons.

The iPhone goes on sale just 10 days after the death of Steve Jobs. His passing garnered more press than any single event in Silicon Valley that I can remember. The coverage focused not only on Jobs’ singular career and vision, but also on Apple and its products. Apple is very much on everyone’s mind as the company launches the latest iPhone. So I think there’s special interest this time around.

And finally, the iPhone 4S brings with it some unique features many fans are eager to try. First among these is Siri, the artificial intelligence virtual assistant. The phone also has what will probably be the best camera in any cell phone, complete with image stabilization, incredible graphics performance said to be 700 percent faster than the iPhone 4, and a whole new version of the iOS, which has a new message center and cloud service.

All things considered, the question isn’t why would an iPhone fan wait in line, but why wouldn’t they?

[Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike’s List.]

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