Another iPhone launch brought another onrush of customers to Apple Stores across the country and around the globe, as eager customers queued up to get their hands on the latest smartphone from Apple Friday.
The iPhone 5 went on sale at 8 a.m. local time throughout the U.S. Friday. And that was just one country where the new phone made its debut—the iPhone 5 also arrived in Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, France, Germany, Canada, and the U.K.
In New York, that meant the usual crush of customers outside Apple’s flagship Fifth Avenue Store, which was as packed as any previous iPhone launch. Adding to the mass of humanity were dense droves of reporters and vendors surrounding the queued up customers. Still, when the store opened its doors at 8 a.m., the line moved briskly and continuously.
The scene was more subdued at Toronto’s Yorkdale Mall, perhaps due to a combination of improved online ordering and the fact that Apple Stores in Canada no longer stock unlocked phones. But you didn’t hear any of the 100 or so customers in line complaining about the ligher-than-usual crowds.
That crowd included a number of first-time iPhone shoppers. One Torontonian was making the switch from a BlackBerry to a 16GB iPhone 5, while another person in line was coming back to the iPhone after trying out a Research In Motion phone.
Apple Stores and other retail outlets on the west coast didn’t open their doors until three hours after the Eastern time zone, but that did little to dim the enthusiasm for iPhone 5 shoppers closer to Apple’s home base. In downtown San Francisco, Apple Store employees handed out cards to the people waiting in line to streamline the process of picking up their new phones.
First in line in San Francisco was Charlie Hufnagel, who had been there since Monday evening. Hufnagel wasn’t waiting in line for himself; rather, he had been hired through an online services company called TaskRabbit to wait in line on someone else’s behalf. Store staff had roped off Hufnagel, designating him as first in line. When TaskRabbit wasn’t coordinating food deliveries, Hufnagel used a Bunsen burner to cook ramen and took advantage of the Apple Store’s Wi-Fi.
It all ended happily for Hufnagel, too. The person he was waiting on behalf of showed up on Friday to claim his phone, but store employees still let Hufnagel go into the store to buy one for himself.
Shoppers waiting across the bay at Emeryville’s Bay Street mall didn’t have to camp out as long, but only because over-zealous mall security shooed away early arrivals. Kevin Cross showed up at the Apple Store at 3 a.m. Friday, but mall security wouldn’t let him stand in line for another two hours. He circled the block until 5 a.m. It was Cross’s first time standing in line for an iPhone launch: “I usually wait until the fervor dies down.”
Other iPhone 5 buyers found other avenues for getting a prime place in line. When security at the Emeryville mall chased away Edward Mitoma, the 45-year-old dentist relocated to an Apple Store in nearby Berkeley. “I would have gotten one online if I could keep my phone plan,” Mitoma said. “Plus I wanted to see the experience—the camaraderie.”
Back at the Fifth Avenue Store, Matthew Wainchus, a student at New York’s Pace University, was in line to buy an iPhone 5 on its first day of availability, just as he has for every iPhone release. He was looking forward to LTE support, which will allow the iPhone 5 to connect to faster cellular networks in the U.S.
“I actually like AT&T,” said Wainchus, who had been in line for two hours before the Fifth Avenue store opened. “A lot of people have problems with it, but I love it.”
Across the Atlantic, crowds waiting outside the Apple Store on Regent Street in London were a bit more mixed about the iPhone 5’s faster networking capabilities. There are about ten countries in Europe where iPhone 5 buyers will be able to take advantage of LTE. In the U.K. a commercial LTE network will soon be launched by operator EE, a joint venture between T-Mobile and Orange.
Some customers outside the London Apple Store couldn’t wait for the speed boost. “Faster is always better. My broadband at home is only 7Mbps and this should be a least three times as fast,” said Aamir Karmali.
EE is the only U.K. operator that will offer LTE, and others buyers don’t think it’s worth switching operators for faster speeds.
“I am on O2, and I am not swapping just to get 4G … I don’t need it, O2’s network is fast enough when you are actually connected to the network,” said Matthew Taylor.
Taylor isn’t alone in sticking with his current operator: “I am not getting LTE straight away, because I am on Vodafone,” said James Smith.
At the Apple Store Opera in Paris, Anthony Fitch was the first to exit with an iPhone 5. He had arrived in Paris from Rome on Wednesday night to get his hands on an iPhone a week before it goes on sale in Italy. He hoped to be able to use LTE in Italy sometime next year.
As in other countries, Canada now sports a range of carriers that support the iPhone, including Bell, Rogers, Fido, and Telus, all of which already support LTE 4G speeds in the country’s major markets. This diversity was reflected in the line at the Yorkdale Mall, where an informal poll revealed a pretty even spread among all the carriers; most of the people Macworld talked to plan to remain with their current carriers, possibly to take advantage of the loyalty programs that some offer.
A typical example was Robert, who declined to give his name, and plans to stick with Bell when he upgrades from his iPhone 4S to a 32GB iPhone 5. “They’re the best,” he said, adding that he was upgrading from an iPhone 4S to a black 32GB iPhone 5.
Interestingly, most major Canadian carriers also have their own stores at Yorkdale, one of Canada’s largest malls, and were planning to match the Apple Store’s early opening. Although none would speak on the record, they all said they had plenty of stock and essentially no lines, with the exception of Telus, where around 15 people were queued up Friday waiting for their turn.
Indeed, picking up an iPhone 5 from one of its carriers instead of from an Apple Store seems to be a way to beat the crowd to Apple’s latest hardware. In 2009, Jon Mercado tried to pick up an iPhone 3GS from an Apple Store and came away empty-handed; this time, he was first-in-line at an AT&T Store in Emeryville’s Bay Street mall, not far away from an Apple Store.
Jason Rupp was doing likewise at an AT&T store in San Francisco. “I walked by the Apple Store, and the line there was two blocks long,” he said. “So I came down here.”
Other iPhone 5 features
Other features, including those in Apple’s just-released iOS 6, fueled interest in the iPhone 5 among shoppers waiting on Friday. “I’m looking forward to Passbook,” Wainchus said back at the Apple Store in New York, “but I kind of wish the iPhone 5 would have NFC.”
Ed Kaz whizzed by as the line marched its way toward the Fifth Avenue Apple Store, but had enough time to say that the Panorama option built-into the iPhone 5’s camera that helps take stitched-together panoramic shots. “I have all the Apple products,” he said.
Alex Russell, an NYU graduate student, was looking forward to the iPhone 5’s larger screen and the new A6 processor. “I like to play games on my phone, so the new screen and processor should be good for that,” Russell said.
Alex Brooks, a self-described tech enthusiast who showed up at the Fifth Avenue store at 6 a.m. Friday, said he was attracted to the iPhone 5’s screen size, the fact that it’s thinner and lighter and has a faster processor. He wasn’t not overly impressed with Apple’s mapping service, but said it’s workable.
“There are other work-arounds to get Google Maps on your phone,” Brooks said. For example, it’s possible to access Google Maps via a browser.
The larger screen seemed to be a draw no matter what country customers were in. “Compared to Samsung’s phones, I think it is about time that Apple increased the screen size,” Karmali said outside London’s Regent Street store.
As in New York, the lines outside Apple Store in London and Paris were quite large, with the crowd outside the Paris store somewhere between 500 and 1000 people. The biggest noise made at the Paris launch came from a handful of former Apple resellers protesting outside the store.
Not everyone queuing was there to get a phone for themselves. Just around the corner from the store in Paris, several people were spotted handing over their Apple bags in return for cash from a man with a wad of €50 notes.
Across the globe in Hong Kong, crowds also lined up for the iPhone 5, though in much smaller numbers than in previous launches. Customers there no longer had to wait in line for hours or even days; instead, they could go to the Apple Store to pick up their phones at assigned timeslots as part of Apple’s pre-ordering system.
The global launch of Apple’s iPhone 5 began early Friday morning in Australia when stores in that country opened their doors at 8 a.m. On Sept. 28, the new iPhone will go on sale in 22 more countries.
Updated at 7:55 a.m. PT with information from Toronto.Updated at 12:20 p.m. PT with information from west coast Apple Stores.
David Dahlquist reported from New York and Marco Tabini reported from Toronto. Additional reporting from Macworld’s Dan Miller, Albert Filice, Liviu Oprescu, and Mike Homnick around Northern California. This story also includes contributions from Mikael Ricknäs of IDG News service in London, Peter Sayer from IDG News Service in Paris, Agam Shah and Joab Jackson from IDG News Service in New York, and Computerworld Hong Kong.