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iPhone 6S global launch undeterred by pope's visit or bad weather

From a robot in line in Sydney to the crowds for the visiting pope in New York, this year's iPhone launch festivities had a few extra wrinkles.

The first buyers in the world at the Apple store in Sydney: fans and robots alike. Seamus Byrne/CNET

No, this isn't the beginning of a joke: The pope, a robot and shorter lines shook up the usual iPhone launch day routine.

While some Apple fans showed up at stores around the world early, with queues forming days ahead of time in Sydney and San Francisco, many of the lines were shorter than in years past, possibly a sign that consumers just aren't as excited by new smartphones as they used to be.

There were a few other wrinkles. The Apple faithful in Sydney, which included a robot sent to hold one fan's place in line, got off to a wet start. New Yorkers had to contend with crowds both at the Apple store and for Pope Francis, who is in the city Friday as part of his US tour.

Buyers also lined up in Singapore, Paris, San Francisco and London as the annual retail spectacle followed the sun around the globe.

The launch of the 6S and 6S Plus, which add a pressure-sensitive screen and a crisper camera, comes amid questions of whether Cupertino, California-based Apple can continue to cast its spell over consumers. Unveiled two weeks ago, this year's models feature only minor aesthetic changes to the phone's chassis, which may dull the appeal for potential buyers who want an immediately recognizable device.

Consumers' fatigue is a problem that the entire industry, including formidable players like Samsung and shooting stars like HTC, faces as the smartphone market matures. But there is no better poster child for this problem than the new iPhone.

That ho-hum feeling doesn't mean Apple won't sell millions of phones. Indeed, Apple said it was on track to exceed last year's initial sales. But it does mean consumers may think a little longer before shelling out cash for an iPhone 6S when their old devices are "good enough."

Having a successful iPhone launch is vital for Apple. The company's iPad business continues to struggle, and its Apple Watch hasn't yet become a major moneymaker. Apple now generates more than two-thirds of its revenue from its smartphone. The iPhone 6S has a high bar to clear for success. The iPhone 6, released at this time last year, has become Apple's best-selling device ever.

Starting point: Sydney

Sales of the new iPhone 6S and 6S Plus began on a cold and very wet morning in Sydney, but Apple fans' spirits were undampened as they huddled under tents and umbrellas.

Lindsay Handmer led off Sydney's queue after arriving two days before the iPhone 6S announcement event. He said he isn't really an Apple fan but wanted to promote his business while raising money for Australia's homeless. He plans to auction the phones he buys later on Friday for charity.

Much of the attention in Sydney went to Lucy Kelly, who sent a robot to hold her place in line in another marketing stunt.

One chair-sitter was both eager and underwhelmed. "I sell my iPhone two weeks before the announcement each year to get the best price before I upgrade," said 15-year-old Marcus Barsoum, who joined the queue at 4 a.m. Thursday. "I'm not too excited this year, to be honest. I'm going to get the rose gold because that's the one that shows off that it is the new model."

Barsoum will buy the 64GB iPhone 6S Plus.

Pricing for the new iPhones, unveiled September 9, starts at $199 with a two-year contract, and Apple also offers a new upgrade program that lets users update their iPhones every year by paying a monthly installment. The program isn't available everywhere.

"If Apple had launched the iPhone upgrade program in Australia this year, I'd probably have bought it through that," said Chris Norton, 24, of western Sydney. "I hope they do next year."

Norton likes to come out for the queues and upgrades his phone every year. This year he's buying the Apple Watch and latest MacBook alongside his 64GB iPhone 6S Plus in space gray.

French fans

In France, lines were shorter than for previous launches, but the event still drew hundreds to Apple's store next to the Paris Opera. Manuel Cimarosti, a 38-year-old Parisian who works for yogurt maker Danone and has owned every iPhone since the first, enjoys the event.

Manuel Cimarosti, a 38-year-old Parisian who has owned every iPhone since the first, enjoys the spectacle of iPhone launches. Stephen Shankland/CNET

"People have things they really like. For me, the iPhone is one of them," he said from his spot a few dozen places from the front of the line. He's getting the 64GB iPhone 6S, not the 6S Plus. "It's too big for a man. It doesn't fit in your pocket," he said.

Although he's an Apple fan, he still sees iPhone 6S shortcomings. "For me, the biggest problem is always battery life. The dream is to have a one-week battery life," not one day even with a portable battery charger, he said. Second, he wants Apple to make its iPhones waterproof, as Sony has with some Android-powered smartphones, and durable enough that he doesn't need a protective case. Many French people think cases are for losers, but it's better than a broken screen, Cimarosti said.

Not everyone is sold on the hullabaloo. Martha Iglesia, a 31-year-old Spanish woman who works in Paris' massive retail sector, made a reservation to replace her broken iPhone 5C with a 64GB iPhone 6S. It was her first time at an Apple store on an iPhone launch day -- and probably her last, she said after a half an hour waiting.

"I'm thinking of leaving," she said, even though she wanted the iPhone 6S' better camera for a weekend outing with friends. "My boss is waiting for me in the office."

The new iPhones can still can be hard to find in many parts of the world, though. France's first buyer, 26-year-old bicycle mechanic Jonathan Pierrard, drove four hours from Belgium and waited 24 hours in line for a 64GB space gray iPhone 6S.

London goes for 128GB models

The first person to pass under the colonnades and through the doors of the Covent Garden store in London was 29-year-old Sam Shaikh from Stratford. Shaikh, originally from India, became the first person in the UK to own an iPhone 6S and 6S Plus, a notable achievement given that he was the first UK owner of the iPhone 6 last year.

"Every day I would come here to see if anyone had started or not," he said, explaining his queuing tactic. "Monday I made up my mind that as somebody was not there I would definitely be the No. 1." Will he will repeat the exercise next year for the iPhone 7? "Who knows. Maybe I will. If I'm crazy enough to queue for so many days I will."

Sam Anderson, a 26-year-old restaurant manager from East London, had been in the queue since 6 the night before and said that he'd owned every generation of iPhone. Anderson was looking forward to picking up a 128GB rose gold iPhone 6S. Rachel Bassett, a 45-year-old housewife who had come from Ireland, also wanted the new color option.

In Paris, 64GB models were the top pick among those interviewed, but in London, 128GB devices were the top pick, in rose gold. Shaikh said that he was "quite impressed" with the color of the phone now that he'd seen it in person. "I'd seen the Apple Watch, which is in rose gold, and I like it."

A different kind of faithful in New York

On the eve of Apple's iPhone 6S launch in Manhattan, there were road closures, a heavy police presence and tens of thousands of the faithful crowding the streets.

No wait, that wasn't for the iPhone. That was for the pope.

Justina Siciunaite, a 25-year-old student from Lithuania, was the first customer Friday to come out of Manhattan's Fifth Avenue Apple Store with the new iPhone. Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

There are few things in this world that can trump an iPhone event, and His Holiness, who touched down in New York on Thursday night, is certainly one of them.

At Apple's flagship Fifth Avenue store, with its iconic glass cube entrance, the hundreds of folks waiting in line for Apple's newest smartphone were temporarily swallowed up Thursday evening by a crowd of thousands watching the pope's convoy drive by to St. Patrick's Cathedral down the street.

Asked Friday morning which he thought was more important -- the new iPhone or the pope -- Andreas Frantzis, an 18-year-old from Queens, said: "Well, I'm in this line, so the iPhone to me."

The line at the Fifth Avenue store on Friday was markedly smaller than last year's massive crowd for the iPhone 6. Ahead of the store's opening, the snaking lines of customers fit snugly inside the surrounding plaza and didn't flood onto the sidewalks and clear around several street corners, as they did last year.

That's good news for Salman Alotaibi, an 18-year-old from Kuwait, who came to visit New York to take part in the Apple line and purchase a new rose gold iPhone 6S Plus. He'd been waiting in line for three days; some others ahead of him were waiting for more than two weeks.

"If you ask, 'You want to go to Disneyland or wait in an Apple line,' I will wait," he said with a big smile.

San Francisco's international appeal

In San Francisco, some people started lining up more than two days before the phone launched. But many others had no issues arriving Friday morning and quickly getting their new iPhones.

Last year, lines snaked around three sides of the downtown city block housing Apple's Stockton Street store, including on Powell Street alongside the city's famed cable cars. Friday, the line only stretched along one side of the block. Apple store employees handed out coffee and bagels to people waiting in line, while construction on a new transportation line went on outside the store's front doors.

The Apple store in downtown San Francisco wasn't as hectic as during the iPhone 6 launch. James Martin/CNET

Keegan Cooper, an 18-year-old worker at California State University in Hayward, arrived at 7 a.m. on Thursday to be toward the front of the line. He wanted to upgrade his iPhone 5S to the 16GB iPhone 6S Plus in space gray.

"I've always wanted to do this since the iPhone 4 came out," he said. "You get to meet new people."

Next to Cooper in line was Pouya Halvaei, a 17-year-old student from Iran who was in San Francisco on vacation. He planned to buy the 64GB iPhone 6S in space gray for himself and the rose gold version for his mother, a big step up from his current iPhone 4.

"I just happened to be here at the right place at the right time," he said. If Halvaei bought the iPhone from a vendor in Iran, it would cost double the amount as in the US, he said.

Tony N., who asked that his full name not be used, was buying two iPhone 6S Plus phones to sell in his home country of Argentina, one of the places without an Apple store and without access to the phone Friday. He, and a couple of friends waiting with him, arrived at the store at 2 a.m. to purchase last-minute orders for people in Argentina. They also had ordered many iPhones online, with plans to send about 15 devices back to people who'd prepaid for them in Argentina. He sells the iPhone 6S Plus with 64GB of storage for about $1,600, about double the purchase price in the US.

"I usually travel here every September," he said. Selling iPhones to Argentinians "can pay for the trip."

Editor's note: This story has been updated several times throughout the day.