PARIS--Why brave the chilly, early spring air of Paris for hours just to get the latest electronic gadget that you could also just order online?
Because, as Apple demonstrated today as hundreds gathered outside its store to buy the new iPad, there still can be more to it than a mere financial transaction.
"J'aime le Mac," said Zhuang Bin, shuffling slowly but steadily down a chicane of metal crowd-control barriers to buy a new companion for his first- and second-generation iPads.
The Apple tablet no longer is such a novelty, and buying one is mundane for plenty of people. But the consumer ritual of lining up outside the Apple store, which grew up with the iPhone and expanded to include the iPad, remains intact. Tourists come instead of visiting museums, and locals take time off work.
"It's amazing to come here and see the show. Apple is a big company, and they do the party well," said Marieke Loppin, a Parisian who's buying an iPad for her fiance and headed to the Apple store to "enjoy the moment."
Another gift-giver was Caroline Belin, who tiptoed out of the house early to get a 32GB Wi-Fi iPad.
"It was to make a surprise to my husband," she said. "He doesn't know. He thinks I came to work very early in the morning."
Her husband wants it to show what he's working on while on the job, but she expects her 8- and 11-year-old children will want it for games.
Just outside the Apple store, Amazon advertised its own Kindle, but Belin was only interested in an Apple tablet. When the family needed a second computer besides their Mac, they bought a Windows machine because it wasn't as expensive. "We bought a Windows PC, and we don't like it at all," she said.
Another iPad that will see use at work is the one Jonas Obeid plans to use in his dentist office to show patients their case information and photos. "It's easier to handle," he said.
Paris is a big, cosmopolitan city, and some people came from far away to buy iPads. Dmitry Krylov and his wife flew from St. Petersburg, Russia, via Finland and Germany, to get a pair of iPads--though they're also seeing the sights as Parisian tourists.
There was a lot of Russian audible in the line, and one security guard said he'd seen people also from Hungary, Poland, Greece, and the United Kingdom.
Simon Clay came all the way from Vancouver, Canada--and had a bit of an unfair advantage over many in the line accustomed to being awake at more ordinary hours. "I'm so jetlagged, I woke up really early. It'll take awhile for the family to wake up. I thought I'd spend the jetlag time in the line," he said.
Clay had solid technical chops, but he's interested in the iPad as a way to reach with elderly relatives in Devon, England, who aren't up to the challenges of ordinary computers but who want to see family photos. But he'd like to see iPads even easier to use, he said--and to be able to manage them from afar.
"The thing that's got to come from Apple is remote control," he said. "Getting a photo off it is just too difficult."
The third-generation iPads are available with just with Wi-Fi or also with LTE technology for fast 4G wireless networking--at least where network operators have built 4G networks. Vancouver has LTE, and Clay is buying a 4G model for its Wi-Fi hotspot abilities and a better resale value.
But in Europe, LTE remains relatively rare, and almost nobody I spoke to in line was getting 4G iPads. It'll still work on 3G networks, of course, but 4G isn't the selling point here that it is in New York or San Francisco.
"I can't use 4G in France," Bin said. Added Loppin, "It's a bit expensive."
And Joseph Pinkasfeld, developer of the NesMusic app for listening to Nintendo videogame music, walked out of the store with 32GB and 64GB Wi-Fi models. Pulling out an iPhone 4S, he said, "I can access the Internet with my phone."
The phone's battery was almost flat, though--perhaps from killing time between arriving at the line at 6 a.m. and emerging from the store at 10 a.m. Why not buy it online? Because a few hours at the store is better than waiting three weeks for delivery, he said.
And there are worse places to fritter away the hours.
"It was quite calm. We just used patience," Belin said. "It was nice for the Apple staff to talk to us, and we had some coffee."