Waiting in line for the iPhone 3GS, Why I Wished I stayed in Bed

It was supposed to be a dark and stormy night. In New York City, two-thirds of the Gillette triumvirate (Tiger Woods and Derek Jeter) got rained on and nearly out. Not only does Steve Jobs’ control a couple of the coolest companies on the planet, he must also control the weather. Instead of profuse precipitation spoiling his iPhone 3G S party, by the time the Apple store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan opened at 7 this morning, the sun had managed to carve out swaths in the overcast and rays of light illuminated the really early adopters waiting to buy the new iPhone 3G S.

But this year’s model did not attract the crowds or the excitement as the original two years ago or its 3G successor last year. By the time I stepped down the spiral staircase into the inner sanctum, there were only about 1,000 iPhone acolytes snaking around the metal barricades on the plaza in front of the iconic Apple cube. For most of the night, there were barely a third of this total.

Crowd Outside The Fifth Avenue Apple Store in Manhattan

Crowd Outside The Fifth Avenue Apple Store in Manhattan

Is the 3G S simply not enough of an upgrade over the 3G to attract the usual multitasking multitudes? Did the weather forecast literally dampen attending enthusiasm? Did lots of folks decide to avoid the human crush and have their 3G S home delivered? Have consumers smartened up and realized they could saunter over to an Apple or AT&T store at a more reasonable hour to get Apple’s latest and greatest? Maybe a combination of some or all of these kept the crowd down.

The small numbers didn’t mean lessened enthusiasm, though. As Spencer Tracy described Katherine Hepburn’s character in Pat & Mike, “Not much meat on her, but what’s there is cherce.”

iPhone vets/iPhone virgins

The reasons for folks braving the elements, the wait and the clock were as varied as the iPhone’s available apps.

Most folks were like me, trading in their old iPhone. Why? The video recorder. Almost everyone I spoke to couldn’t wait to start capturing the moments of their lives in iPhone’s glorious new VGA video. “I’m always just taking videos all around,” said Cindy Braun, an NYU student, who was trading in her beat-up iPhone Classic. “I like to document things I do and post ’em to my blog.”

Crowd Outside The Fifth Avenue Apple Store in Manhattan

Crowd Inside The Fifth Avenue Apple Store in Manhattan

But why queue up in the middle of the night instead of just waiting until the vampires, owls and downtown hipsters find their way home? “I guess the big reason is the hype,” Braun admitted. “I heard about what happened last year, and it’s cool to see so many people coming out to get their iPhones. Who wouldn’t want to be here on the first day and be the first?”

Would you like to see a list?

Dariel Lopez, a barber from Brooklyn, was near the front of the line waiting to trade in his 16 GB 3G. While the new video recording capability was high on his list of reasons to upgrade, that’s not why he was representing at 2 am. “I’m waiting for the TV cameras,” the ebullient Lopez gleefully admitted. “I figured if I’m up front, the TV reporters will want to talk to me.”

Lopez’ Brooklyn buddy, Kingsborough Community College student Larry Williams, had a more practical reason for arriving extra early. “Last year I was in line at the Soho store for seven hours,” Williams related. “But by the time I got inside they were sold out and they sent me here. This year I figured I’d just skip Soho and come here.”

Larry Williams and Dariel Lopez representing on the iPhone 3G S line.

Larry Williams and Dariel Lopez representing on the iPhone 3G S line.

Anthony Miller, who works in IT at the New York State Attorney General’s office was trading in his 16 GB 3G, also wanted to avoid his 2008 experience. “Last year I was around the block down 58th Street. I wanted to get it a little earlier this year.”
Not everyone in line was an iPhone veteran. Kerian Walker, a maintenance man at nearby Fordham University, was a Sprint subscriber porting his number from a Samsung Instinct, but the iPhone wasn’t his first choice.

“I was going to get the [Palm] Pre,” Walker explained, “but the [iPhone] beats the Pre price. The Pre is 200 bucks, but you only get 8 GB and the screen is way smaller. With the iPhone you get 16 GB for 200 bucks and a bigger screen, so I said, know what? I’m gonna switch.”

Walker hadn’t really played with an iPhone and was unaware of the 3G S’ main selling points. So I pontificated, which just made him more excited.

But he didn’t really need to be sold. Last Friday he got to work two hours early so his boss would let him come in a little later this morning. He was on-and-off his Instinct all morning, proudly letting friends and co-workers know where he was.

Dribs and drabs

For hours, the crowd was minimal. The first folks camped out at 7 a.m. Thursday morning, sitting through torrential rain most of the day, camped out under Apple logo’ed umbrellas. When I showed up at 2:30 am, there were maybe a couple of dozen people hanging about, some snoozing, others still in the initial throes of iPhone line excitement.

I sauntered off to McDonald’s for a way-after-midnight snack, and then wandered over to a 24-hour CVS to buy a folding beach chair to make the next few hours of waiting comfortable.

Turns out I didn’t need the chair. By the time I returned at around 4:30 am, the crowd had swelled to only a couple of hundred. By comparison, last year’s line had already queued up almost to Madison Avenue on East 58th Street, and by the time the store opened, people were lined up around the block, north on Madison then back east on 59th Street.

This morning at 5, there was no one waiting on 58th Street except some Apple employees and media representatives. At that point, Apple employees trimmed the herd, shooing those of us who’d made reservations into holding lines. We snaked up and down the metal barricades like we were playing Follow-the-Leader. By the time we’d gone back and forth, I ended up at exactly the same spot I’d started from.

With the smaller crowd – and smaller expectations – the circus atmosphere was also missing. Last year, every company with even a tertiary connection to high tech were handing out freebies and brochures to the captive audience. This year, only four companies hawked their wares: an online marketing company was distributing Izze Sparkling Apple beverage (get it? Apple?); an iPhone accessories Web site was giving away orange T-shirts – taking and posting a picture of yourself wearing the garment entered you in a contest to win $2,000 worth of iPhone accessories; a fellow dressed like an iPhone was prompting folks to recycle their old phones; and, a group from a ringtone company twirled their placards for the assembled TV and still cameras.

Recycle your iPhones

Recycle your iPhone Guy

Even the media frenzy was, well, less frenzied. At one point, I thought the media was going to out-number the customers. There were only a few TV trucks, and the phalanx of cameras capturing us as we entered the store was a third of the size of last year’s throng.

The more things change…

There may have been less hype and less hoopla, but the ever-enthusiastic Apple apostles didn’t act any less excited – we were met by the same creepy automaton applauding and whooping by Apple employees as we were the last two years – and were infinitely more efficient.

Inside, there seemed to be more iPhone helpers than actual customers, which was good for me and everyone else. I got into the store a little after 7 am and, by 7:15, I had my phone all activated and I was ready to go, literally and figuratively. Almost all the folks whose acquaintance I’d made in line also seemed stunned by the speed of their activations and were wandering aimlessly around the store wondering. Perhaps like me, they were pondering if the anticipation was worth the actual event.

Perhaps they now understand what Tom Petty was saying when he exclaimed that the waaaaaiiiiting is the hardest part.