How Apple keeps them lining up

A chilly morning in New York. Rain in San Francisco. Who cares? Apple fans were standing outside stores yesterday for their third-generation iPads. But why?

Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Jim Kerstetter Staff writer, CNET News
Jim Kerstetter has been writing about the high-tech industry since the 1990s. He has been a senior editor at PC Week and a Silicon Valley correspondent at BusinessWeek. He is now senior executive editor at CNET News. He moved back to Boston because he missed the Red Sox. E-mail Jim.
Josh Lowensohn
Jim Kerstetter
3 min read
The line for Apple's new iPad outside its flagship store in New York on Friday morning.
The line for Apple's new iPad outside its flagship store in New York on Friday morning. Sarah Tew/CNET

What does the iPad have in common with Harry Potter? Quite a lot it turns out.

It's got legions of fans eager to line up for it, lose sleep over it, and even skip work to be the first to get their hands on it. And of course there are those that detest it entirely.

We're not going to call CEO Tim Cook a wizard, say there will be an eight-part movie series, or focus on the company's use of the word "magic" to draw this comparison out even further. But we will say that few products have brought this kind of appeal, and fewer still have done it more than once.

Yet with the third (and assuredly not final) iPad, Apple's managed to do it again. yesterday's launch, which brought lines at Apple's stores and third-party retailers around the world, is an affirmation of that.

What's Apple's secret for turning these launches into a cultural event? It's consistency, and it's surprise. You believe that Apple product you're about to buy will be like the last one, but how will it be better?

The people who line up know what to expect. Heck, many of them will sell what they buy less than a year from now (just look at some of the numbers trade-in services posted last week).

The thought may make an Apple hater retch, but you can't get past it: The iPad or the iPhone is what "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" was in the '60s, what "Star Wars" was in the '70s, and Harry Potter books were during the late '90s and into the '00s: A measure of our relevance to the times. Not buying one or buying a competitor's is a statement: You're not a Beatles fan, you're a Stones fan. You don't like Apple, but you dig Android or Windows.

Late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, the devout Beatles fan, would either chuckle or cringe at the analogy. But how else do you explain people lining up for the third generation of a product? How do you explain young women shrieking so loud at Shea Stadium that people mistook them for low-flying aircraft? The two are not so different.

It started with the iPod and continued through to the iPad: Apple leaped from the tech product cycle and into the cultural landscape, and it's done a remarkable job at staying there.

With that said, there remains the question of when these line-filled launches will peak or hit an end entirely. Using the iPod as a precedent--a product that never caused lines, but boosted Apple's bottom line and gave it a foothold into the consumer consciousness--it's clear that what's hot now can be less hot later. Though in that case, the product's core coolness became part of what made these newer devices something people could instantly latch onto and covet.

These smaller gadgets also lend themselves well to shared experiences. Like gamers lining up to get the latest Call of Duty, or just about any major title at video game stores, the end product may be solitary in its nature, but there's a deep camaraderie about being among the first to get it, as silly as that may seem to those that are not a part of the pack.

When looking ahead to whether Apple can make this formula work for yet another product, one can't go without mentioning TVs, which are strongly rumored to be the company's next big thing. If Cook and company can manage to get legions of buyers to queue up for a TV set that's not a Wal-Mart door buster on Black Friday, it might really be time to start tossing around that wizard title.

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