Life in the iPhone 5 line: Fashion as a must-have 'feature'

Once again, the iPhone goes on sale with hundreds lining up in front of Apple stores to get it the day it comes out. What motivates people to do so? Don't dismiss being fashionable as a crucial selling point.

After three-and-a-half hours, I felt lucky to get in so "quickly" on the first day of iPhone sales. Danny Sullivan

I may write a CNET column called called "Common Sense Tech," but I can't say that I or any of those who were in line with me today for iPhone 5 are showing much common sense. But the iPhone, perhaps more than any other device, illustrates how important a feature that fashion can be, in addition to function, when it comes to tech purchases.

Don't get me wrong. The iPhone 5 is an excellent phone, as our CNET iPhone 5 review covers. As usual, I'm not trying to spark some type of fanboy debate over what's the "best" phone. As I've said before, there is no wrong phone.

But there's no question that for many, the iPhone has been and continues to be a "must have" purchase, a product that people just want for reasons beyond its technical features, a purchase they'll even line up for to have the day it comes out, as they did again today.

Why? Because I want it, that's why!
Those buying the new iPhone today can justify why they want it in various ways. But most don't seem to have a good reason for why they have to have it this very minute, to the degree of lining up in the wee hours of the morning, other than they just want it now. And they're fine with that.

Believe me, I know. I'm one of them. I turned up at my local Apple Store in the Fashion Island shopping center in Newport Beach at 5:00am PT. During my three-and-a-half hour wait (which I considered to be short!), I passed the time talking with others in line with me.

I'll get to what those others had to say, but I'll offer myself up first. I've got good reasons why I want the new iPhone, as I've written about before in my own review of it. In particular, gaining 4G LTE speed and turn-by-turn directions means I can get features I've loved with my Galaxy Nexus and other Android phones but with the iOS operating system that I find easier to use.

But there's no good reason for me having gotten up so early, just so I could have it on the day it came out. Nor had I planned to. I did the pre-order last week, but that turned out to be a big fail. My attempt to process an order through AT&T didn't work. When I completed it by phone the following day, I was told the phone wouldn't arrive for two weeks.

Two weeks? Two weeks! I couldn't wait that long. Sure, I could say I really need to have the latest Apple phone from day one for work reasons. I write about tech, and phones are a key part of that. But the reality is that even if I weren't a tech writer, I'd probably still have lined up to get the new phone today.

Over and over again, as I talked to people, it was the same story as mine. They just wanted it. And they wanted it now.

Elijah Tadj

"I wasn't even planning to buy it," said Elijah Tadj, 30, from Irvine, as we talked. But then he came out at 4 a.m. (and ended up around 25th in line) because after hearing so much about the iPhone 5, he decided he did want to upgrade. 

Why? The LTE speed gain? Some other feature?

"It's just shinier," he said.

Tadj is very much your stereotypical Apple fan, a long-time iPhone user and hardcore about loving Apple.

"I would never get an Android phone, because it's a ripoff," he told me, referring to the recent patent lawsuit Apple won against Samsung

He wasn't tempted away by a Samsung Galaxy S2 he tried in the past, saying he felt the UI lagged and that Apple pays better attention to details.

Unfazed by Samsung's mocking ads
Speaking of Samsung, the company is known for its commercials mocking iPhone users for lining up. There's a fresh one airing now.

Tadj said he's seen the ad. It made him feel bad for Samsung, not for himself. 

"I think it's desperate. It makes me feel sad. Why are you going to bash on customers just because they're passionate about it. Just get over it," he told me.

Several others I spoke in line who'd seen the ad thought the same thing. Rather than make them feel like they should abandon the iPhone, the ad almost seemed to reaffirm they were making the right choice by staying with it.

"It's just ridiculous," said Lindsay Parker, a 29 year-old from Newport Beach who sat next to me, around 50th in line. She likes Apple, and she's staying with it, and that's despite living with an Android user.

Lindsay Parker

"My boyfriend has Android, and we're constantly making stupid jokes at each other. He loves his. We're happily cohabitating in mutual brands."

The trifecta of awesomeness
For her, Apple's integration across devices is a selling point.

"I have a MacBook and an iPad, and I went to the iPhone when it first came out. Everything just works really well together, especially since they came out with iCloud," she told me.

I heard this same point from several others in line. One man in his late 20s referred to it as the "the trifecta of awesomeness" in how the iPhone, iPad and MacBook all worked together.

Not lost over Maps issues
But what about issues with the new Maps. Doesn't it bother her that Apple, by jumping away from Google, doesn't seem to be delivering as good of Maps as iOS 5 offered?

"It should but it doesn't," she says. "I'm firmly in the fan group that will stick with them no matter what," she said. That includes sticking with them even when she had to jailbreak iPhones in the past to get features she wanted, though she's happy she no longer feels compelled to do that.

She also added that Google Maps still exists as an alternative on the iPhone, if the native Maps app didn't do well. Several others in line said the same thing, as I talked to them. 

If there was a problem with the new Maps, they'd turn to Google, either through the browser (something Google's now promoting) or through an app they assumed would come (it probably will, but Google's being cagey about if and when, and there are potential issues about approval by Apple).

Issues with maps also gave Tadj pause, when I asked him about that. "I do love Google Maps," he said. "I think Apple's eventually going to get it right." He also figured that a Google Maps app would be up within a week.

The line-up tradition
Clearly those in line love their Apple phones. But why line up for them, especially so early in the morning?

"It's a tradition," Parker said. "It's fun to meet everybody."

Others said the same. Being in line wasn't some type of a pain, as the Samsung commercials sometimes suggest. Rather, it was exciting. It was a meetup. It was fun. 

One person joked to me, "I've done worse things," while his smile made it clear he didn't even count being in line as bad at all. Certainly the free Starbucks coffee being handed out was well received. Apple employees telling everyone they were "awesome" for being there was nice.

In fact, when I arrived, everyone was self-organizing. The Irvine Company, which owns Fashion Island where Apple is one of several stores, wouldn't let anyone actually line up on its property. People were instead being told to go out in the parking lot.

Parking lot gathering

There, one young woman in her early 20s -- not an Apple employee -- added each new arrival to a paper list she'd been keeping. She'd been there since 7pm the night before and wanted to make sure that there was some sense of order. People were cheerfully giving their names and joking around. 

The only real downer was when an security guard came over, said that a "head honcho" at the Irvine Company decided that people could finally line-up early but that if people didn't behave, the police would be called. People behaved, and not because they were being warned, simply because it was a party atmosphere where everyone was excited for the opening.

Waiting for others
Some reasons people gave for being in line were sweet. One guy in his early 30s said that he bought his wife the original iPhone when it came out. Each year, he gets her the new one as a kind of anniversary gift, even though the actual date moves. He gets her old phone.

One woman was waiting for her father, who really wanted it. Another woman was getting one for her daughter. Lucky daughter.

One reason wasn't so sweet. Three women sitting together were happily chatting despite the fact they weren't waiting to get iPhones for themselves. Their bosses had sent them to wait. Personally, I think the bosses should buy them -- all iPhone users -- upgrades.

Lining up in front of the Apple Store, Fashion Island, Newport Beach

Fashion, desire, is a feature too
It's easy for some Android fans and others to take apart some of the things I've covered above, even more so the idea of people lining up because they just can't wait. I've seen any number of such comments in the past, dismissing Apple fans as dumb for paying too much or buying a phone that lacks features other phones have.

Doing that misses the bigger point. Make no mistake. The iPhone does stack up very well against other phones, when you compare software and hardware features. But people are also buying them for things beyond that, such as the Apple ecosystem of content or integration between devices.

Beyond that, the iPhone also has that je nai sai quoi, that fashionable element that other phones simply haven't seemed to capture. That might not seem like a "feature" that can be ticked alongside other things like LTE or the size of a screen. But it effectively is, and it's a feature other makers would love to match.

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