Adventures in the iLines

So, this morning I reported on the thin to non-existent overnight crowds at local AT&T and Apple stores in the San Francisco area. Having stood now in two locations, I have to say my iPhone 3G S buying experience has been filled with quirks.

At the Apple store at Union Square, the line burgeoned quickly once day broke. Eventually, in the lead up to the store's 7 a.m. opening time, Apple staff began to separate people into two lines: One for pre-orders, one for walk-ins. The pre-order line was by far the longer line; staffers said the store had more people on hand dedicated to the pre-order customers than to walk-ins.

Even so, a colleague and I were at about number 58, including pre-orders, ahead of us. And she got through the line and upstairs to the store's second floor, reserved for walk-ins, by 7:15 a.m.

Contrast that with my experience at my local AT&T store by AT&T Park. There, the queue was nonexistent until about a quarter to 7, and although the store opened, it was only accommodating two people at a time. A staffer said more people would be coming at 8 a.m., and that the first people in had problems with their upgrade. So much for avoiding the main congestion areas -- had I pre-ordered, or even stayed on the Apple Store line I joined at 6 a.m., I could have had a phone in hand by about 7:30.

Meanwhile, at 7:45 a.m. at the local AT&T store, 19 of us now continued to wait in line. The line is for both pre-sale pickups, and walk-in sales, though the store declined to say how many phones it had available today for walk-ins. By contrast, at the AT&T store by Market and Third, the store had two separate lines designated from the get-go.

apple iphone 3gs launch
Apple Store staff welcomes iPhone 3G S buyers. Photo: Heather Kelly, Macworld
These contrasting experiences -- a mere five-minute cab ride apart -- indicate just how varying an experience you may have today while trying to buy an iPhone 3G S. That said, it appears that crowds were relatively low, and even those who didn't pre-order a phone have a reasonable chance of walking in and buying one.

The Apple Store appeared orderly, with the now-familiar cheer rising up to accompany customers as they go in to buy iPhones on launch morning. But even there, the whole pre-order vs. walk-in question appeared to confuse customers. At least the store appeared to be moving customers along briskly through the multiple steps of buying an iPhone; we've had no reported dramatic delays as occurred last year when the servers went down. At the Walnut Creek, CA store, a colleague at Macworld reported that store staff began segmenting the line into pre-orders and walk-ins at about 5 am.

At this early hour, my sense is that Apple and AT&T could have done a better job coordinating this phone's launch from the outset. Between the early and ongoing questions surrounding pre-orders, store opening hours, and the change in AT&T's upgrade policy (a classy change to be sure, but something that would have been a stronger offering from AT&T had the company anticipated the consumer outrage, and codified and reshaped its policies before the pre-order was announced). Furthermore, AT&T's pre-orders were treated as mail order items: And, oddly, those who pre-ordered were unable to change their chose (up or down) during the pre-order pickup window.

Meanwhile, it's now 8 am and I still have five people ahead of me. And the people who arrived at 6:45 a.m. have just left with their iPhone 3G S in hand.

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