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The Apple iPhone SE launch was far from divine

Apple started selling a new phone Thursday, but seeing no lines of faithful customers seemed surreal.

Whenever a new iPhone goes on sale, folks tend to act like it's a religious holiday. There are the rituals of waiting outside stores in snaking lines and getting high-fived by hordes of excited Apple retail employees after making a purchase.

These customs happened predictably every year since 2007 -- that is, until Thursday, when the iPhone SE launched. Technically, the SE is a new iPhone, but it's really just the older model iPhone 5S spiffed up with new internal parts to make it run faster and take sharper pictures.

At the company's flagship Fifth Avenue store in Manhattan on Thursday morning, there were no lines of customers anxiously waiting to give their tithes to Tim Cook, no Apple retail employees cheerleading the event, and no Apple press representatives telling me I couldn't stand in that spot. Heck, there was no other media, which made me wonder what I was even doing there.

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This lucky guy is first in line for the new iPhone SE at the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue. No wait, he just stopped to scratch his head.

Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

My experience along Fifth Avenue wasn't unique. Most Apple Stores didn't have the typical long lines, and the iPhone SE was still widely available throughout the US, according to Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster.

So, were Apple worshippers losing their religion? Doubtful. There should still be huge lines when Apple starts selling the iPhone 7 expected later this year. But Thursday's scene marks the first time that an Apple iPhone launch was just like every other phone launch: completely pedestrian.

The SE has a 4-inch display, the same smaller size as iPhone models from three years ago, and has just about all the same handy features as the bigger and more expensive iPhone 6S, which went on sale last fall. There wasn't all that much new here, but it's still a new iPhone, right? I felt compelled to show up at the store to get an impression of who might be interested in this new device.

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Michael Zurru with his soon-to-be-retired iPhone 4S.

Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

Inside the store, a small crowd gathered around a table displaying the new phones. There, I spoke with Michael Zurru, 54, of Locarno, Switzerland, who was on vacation in New York. He had come to upgrade from a 3.5-inch iPhone 4S, a 2011 vintage now reaching old age in smartphone years that he's kept in service for more than four years.

"When I heard about this, I said, 'Oh finally,' " Zurru said, describing the smaller SE phone as more stable, more comfortable to hold and easier to fit in his pockets than a larger device.

I showed him my 4.7-inch iPhone 6, and he quickly asked: "And isn't it too big?"

I was soon kicked out of the store for showing up without an Apple public relations handler; Apple was unwilling to bend the rules even during a lesser holiday. As I exited, I met Daniel Aharonov, a 13-year-old student from Queens, who just bought a new iPhone SE to replace a recently purchased OnePlus phone with a wheezy battery.

"It's cheaper for the same quality of phone," he said, comparing the SE to the iPhone 6S, "just with a smaller screen."

The iPhone SE starts at $399, while the flagship iPhone 6S starts at $650.

So, does this mean smaller screens are back? No, not really.

But at least for these two customers, Christmas came early this year.

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