Why People Don't Line Up for iPhones as Much Anymore

That image of people excitedly cheering as they are among the first to buy new iPhones is largely from a bygone era.

Ian Sherr Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. At CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
4 min read
The head of the queue of several hundred people who came to buy an iPhone 5 at the Paris Apple store

The head of the queue of several hundred people who came to buy an iPhone 5 at the Paris Apple store.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Back in 2007, David Barnard's plans for buying his first iPhone were simple. He was going to walk up to AT&T store during the weekend and buy one. That's it.

But his brother Sam convinced him otherwise. 

It took a simple phone call to persuade David to drive to the Apple Store in San Antonio and wait in line, and be one of the very first people to buy one.

That iPhone launch has always been a treasured memory for David, who was captured by a San Antonio Express-News photographer as he, his brother and sister-in-law were standing at the front of the line and as they entered the store. David's reaction shortly after getting his hands on the coveted device ended up in the newspaper.

The iPhone launches took on an additional layer of meaning after Sam passed away from cancer in 2015.

"We fought like cats and dogs as kids, and then we started to kind of bond around being Mac nerds," David says. 

Fifteen years later, David is still a self-professed "hopeless fanboy," but much of everything else has changed. As the iPhone went mainstream, Apple turned from an underdog to a titan of industry. Its sales jumped more than 15-fold to $366 billion last year, up from $24 billion for all of the iPhone's launch year in 2007.

See also: iPhone 14 Pro and 14 Pro Max Review: Welcome to Apple's Dynamic Island

The tech industry's grown alongside Apple as well. Back in 2007, billions of people were online and using computers, but today the scale is much larger. Facebook, now the world's largest social network with more than 2.9 billion users logging each month, counted fewer than 100 million back then. And the global smartphone market was less than 10% the size it is today.

Yet those iPhone lines aren't what they used to be.

Industry watchers, historians and analysts agree there are many reasons the lines no longer materialize like in years past. One reason is e-commerce, which today allows people like Barnard to buy their iPhones online and easily have them shipped to their doorstep. Smartphones have also become so mainstream, there isn't as much cachet in being the first on your block with the latest gadget.

We have more complex feelings about the tech industry than we did back then too. The past few years, tech companies have been awash with controversies regarding how they handle (or mishandle) our personal privacy, how they've helped create vast government surveillance networks, or how they've allowed shocking amounts of hate and violence to spring from their products.

See also: iPhone 14 Review: A Good Upgrade for Most People

Today, we're only just beginning to reckon with the aftereffects of putting internet-connected supercomputers in our pockets.

"The smartphone itself is a device loaded with positive and negative association," said Margaret O'Mara, a history professor at the University of Washington and author of The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America.

To be sure, Apple is only one company, even if it is the world's most highly valued one at about $2.45 trillion. Regulators and lawmakers around the world are generally more focused on reining in peers like Facebook parent Meta, Google and YouTube parent Alphabet, Amazon and Twitter, whose platforms and services have helped embolden people seeking to tear down modern democracy itself.

Still, O'Mara says, even if there are fewer lines outside Apple Stores, the diehards were still there for the iPhone 14 launch Friday. Others, meanwhile, have moved online, to social networks and live streaming platforms, where they share, debate, discuss and obsess.

"There are still very intense and passionate fandoms with an eagerness to be the first in line, so to speak, or to be engaged," she said.

A line outside the 5th Ave Apple Store Sept 2022

A line of eager iPhone 14 customers outside the Apple Store on 5th Ave in New York City.

Joseph Kaminsky/CNET

Getting excited

Bob O'Donnell never stood in line for an Apple device, but he did go to book release parties for the Harry Potter series with his kids. "It was an event," he said.

A longtime industry analyst and now founder of Technalysis Research, O'Donnell said it's just harder to generate those levels of excitement for a lot of things, let alone a tech gadget. "Literally, everyone has a smartphone now, and so now it's not as special or unique," he added.

Still, he says, Apple may be able to draw those lines again if it ever gets around to releasing its long-rumored headset, particularly because virtual reality has struggled to live up to its hype.

John Maeda says Apple goggles may not bring out the crowds, but the even-longer-rumored Apple Car would. The technologist and author, who's worked at MIT Media Lab and Silicon Valley VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, among other places, said what's helped Apple stand out is its ability to build well-designed products with similarly well-written software to power them. "Companies that can do both are rare," he said.

An Apple iPhone 14 Pro

Apple's latest iPhone launches Friday.


It's also why people like David Barnard are still excited about iPhones 15 years after the first one landed on store shelves. Shortly after the iPhone launched, Barnard began shifting his career to app development, which eventually led him to his current job as a developer advocate at app sales platform RevenueCat. Barnard eagerly preordered the iPhone 14 Pro a week before its debut, and said he's looking forward to trying the Dynamic Island, a new way to switch between apps at the top of the screen.

And if he hadn't been able to get an iPhone delivered to his home, Barnard said you'd probably have found him in line with a couple friends outside an Apple Store.

"I might complain on Twitter, but I would do it," he said. "And I would be happy and excited to do it, because it is an experience."