LONDON--Do you enjoy waiting in line at the grocery store, gas station, airport, or Department of Motor Vehicles? Probably not.
But such is the measure of Apple's clout with consumers that waiting hours in line for one of England's first iPad 2 tablets is not merely worth the hassle but actually pleasurable.
"This is my first time doing it, and I can say I'm going to do it for every single product," said Craig Fox, who withstood a 25-hour wait by arriving at 4 p.m. yesterday. Fox was near the head of a line of hundreds who came to Apple's store at Oxford Circus here to buy the second-generation tablet. He and Ben Paton, one spot ahead, agreed the company of fellow line mates was the highlight--though Apple's free bottled water and overnight security staff helped keep up spirits, too.
The pleasure-pain inversion reminded me of Apple's online store. Ordinarily it's a bad thing when an e-commerce site goes down, but now a wave of anticipation sweeps across Twitter whenever Apple's "We'll be back soon" message arrives to presaging new products. Surely Apple could figure out how to update its store while it's live, but by now, the buzz probably more than makes up for the lost sales.
Overall, it's marketing genius. For customers, buying an iPad becomes participation in a larger social phenomenon. Sure, they're iSheep, but it can be exciting to be part of a movement, and there's no doubt the products themselves are intrinsically appealing.
Of course, not everybody is so enthusiastic. The vast majority of people in the line were fairer-weather fans who arrived much closer to the magic hour of 5 p.m., when the store opened and iPads went on sale. And of course the less excitable iPad buyers won't bother with a frenzied launch day at all.
"I'm definitely going to buy one, but definitely not today," said Rhys Gray, trying to keep his prime viewing spot on a median strip despite a policeman clearing away the curious. "There's no way I'm waiting...I think queuing is outrageous."
Among the throng, the mood was generally festive. The queue snaked around the side of the store, around a corner, down a side street, around another corner, down another street, then doubled back on itself to economize on sidewalk space.
Oxford Circus is a popular shopping area already, and a crowd draws a crowd. Hundreds of gawking tourists and rush-hour pedestrians stopped to snap photos. As the first customers entered the store when sales began at 5 p.m. local time, a team of blue-shirted Apple employees cheered the arrivals, drawing yet more attention.
"I thought it was a celebrity or something," said one woman who gave a baffled look when finding out the fuss was actually about a premium piece of consumer electronics.
The Apple faithful were out in force, but some didn't get the memo. The store was closed until the iPads went on sale, and employees turned away one man with a cracked laptop screen and another who wanted just to buy a book.
At the head of the queue was Jewels Lewis, an Apple line veteran. Last year, he was fourth in line. "I wanted to go three better," he said, and he arrived at 7:30 a.m. the day before to make sure.
Apple staff walked down the line, finding out exactly which products people wanted to buy to ease the sales process. They'd record what customers wanted--two top-end 64GB models with 3G in Lewis' case--then handed out numbered tickets with a shiny Apple logo.
For Lewis, they brought to mind the fabled tickets that granted the bearer a tour of Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. "They're like the golden tickets," Lewis said.
A luxury in demand
The iPad 2, generally viewed as a nicety rather than a necessity, is competitive with rival tablets following it to market, but it isn't cheap. The starting model, costing 399 pounds (about $642) and equipped with 16GB of memory and no 3G wireless network ability, is actually a bit cheaper in England than the first iPad, which had a starting price of 430 pounds ($692).
Adding 3G to the package raises the price by another 100 pounds, and 3G subscriptions of course add another amount. The top-end 64GB model costs 659 pounds ($1,060).
What's it good for?
It's an adaptable device, and people have different ideas for it.
For Paton, who works at a Rackspace data center, it'll be useful reading and taking notes that otherwise would be on paper.
"Sometimes the iPhone is just a little bit too small to do what you want to do," he said. Paton turned up at 1 p.m. yesterday for his choice spot in the line just outside the front of the Apple store.
Taka Wu wasn't convinced the first iPad was worth it, but his iPhone 4 helped bring him around. A banker, he plans to use his iPad 2 for browsing the Web and as an extra screen that lets him keep on top of Bloomberg, CNN, Yahoo Finance, and Reuters--including video, not just Web sites.
And it's not just for while he's at work. "You can have an extra screen on holiday. Most don't give you those extra channels on holiday," he said.
He also plans to it for Skype video chat with his mother in China, something the first-generation iPad--lacking cameras--couldn't do.
Others in line had another plan entirely: flipping their iPad 2s as soon as they bought them. Among them were friends Catherine Cheng and John Zhang, who said he doesn't even like Apple products.
"It's not worth the waiting," he said. "I'd [only] do it for Michael Jackson." But he'd been in line since 1:30 today so he could sell it to friends for 10 percent more than its sales price.
Not everybody is so committed. Nguyen Hoang began waiting in line since 7:30 a.m. so he could get an 64GB, 3G iPad 2 for his girlfriend. "My girlfriend really likes it because of the design, and she likes to play games on it," he said. But he's not sure if he wants one for himself.
He certainly doesn't need one, but said he'd decide once he tried one in the store.
"I don't think an iPad can replace a Netbook or laptop. The full keyboard is better for writing," he said. "A Netbook is enough for me."