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These iPhone 4 lines could get ugly

In New York, the midtown flagship Apple Store divides customers into two separate lines for the iPhone 4 launch on Thursday morning based on whether they preordered the device.

NEW YORK--One thing that anyone could learn from the three years (!) of Apple iPhone launches at the city's midtown flagship store is that things go best when they're kept simple. The original iPhone launch was remarkably smooth, but the next year, when in-store activations were added into the mix and AT&T's servers were swamped, it got messy. The iPhone 3GS launch last year was, in comparison, very calm.

Around 6:15 p.m. Eastern time, the bifurcated iPhone 4 line (click to enlarge). Caroline McCarthy/CNET

So this time around, for the launch of the iPhone 4 at 7 a.m. on Thursday, the store has two lines--one for people who preordered, and one for those who didn't. When asked how they'd be managed, an Apple Store employee said, "We're going to prioritize the reservations" and shrugged. They did this for the iPad, and it generally worked fine, but still: uh-oh.

Maybe Apple will surprise us all with its deft organizational gumption and pull off the most streamlined product launch in history. But the dual-line setup sounds immediately like a recipe for confusion, frustration, and general unpleasantness considering many of those in line will have spent a night out on a humid Manhattan sidewalk and may be a city block's worth of short fuses. Especially if any of the AT&T activation issues that plagued the iPhone 3G launch add to the mix.

Of course, it's a little bit silly that the line got this long in the first place. Apple let customers preorder the phone--granted, this got complicated and an initial round of preorders was halted after high demand--but as a result, some lucky patrons already have the phone because it was shipped to them a day early. There are (questionably) legitimate reasons for insisting on getting a phone on day one, like the possibility of shortages that could make them hard to obtain for weeks afterward. Apple, however, doesn't have a history of that. And I can say with relative certainty that the majority of these people likely wouldn't see any serious impact to their cardiovascular health or psychological stability if they held off on the iPhone 4 for a few weeks. (And if they would, perhaps they should seek some professional help.)

But people were still willing to wait. Around 6:15 p.m. Eastern time, there were probably around 75 people in the two lines combined, about 15 of whom had preordered. By 10:30 p.m., there were only about 30 people on the preorder side (yes, that guy who's first in line for everything was first in line and he was asleep) but the "walk-up" line had grown significantly longer and was snaking down East 58th Street. It's not yet clear how Apple precisely plans to handle the fact that there may be plenty of confusion surrounding exactly who's in what line and who gets to cut in front of whom.

None of this, of course, takes into account the fact that some people near the back of the line at 10:30 p.m. were about to be in for a nasty surprise: they thought the phone was launching at midnight.

"If it's 7 a.m., we aren't going to wait," one woman said, shrugging, upon being informed of the real launch time. But she and her friends still stayed put, leaving open the possibility that maybe they, too, would stick it out for the whole spectacle regardless.

This post was expanded at 9:02 p.m. PDT.