Live blog: iPhone 3G S launch day

At Apple and AT&T stores in Manhattan, eager first-day buyers line up to get their hands on Apple's upgraded smartphone first thing Friday morning.

CNET News staff
13 min read

Photos: iPhone 3G S launch day

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The rolling rollout of the iPhone 3G S is under way. Apple's latest iPhone has been going on sale Friday at 7 a.m. local time in each time zone where it's available.

We've got a team of people covering the launch. In the East, CNET News' Caroline McCarthy and Marguerite Reardon are reporting live from Apple and AT&T stores in Manhattan. Out West, Erica Ogg, Josh Lowensohn, and James Martin are keeping tabs on iPhone sales in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Are people lining up the way they have for past iPhone launches? Is the phone everything they expected it to be? Does it really take just 10 to 15 minutes to get set up? Tune in and find out as the day goes along.

T minus 3 hours Caroline McCarthy/CNET

McCarthy, 4:14 a.m. EDT at the Fifth Avenue Apple Store: Things are awfully quiet with less than three hours to go before the iPhone 3G S launch, even at the flagship Apple Store on Fifth Avenue and 58th Street As of 4 a.m. there were only about 20 people in line: almost exclusively young and male. The store, normally open 24/7, was closed at midnight in preparation.

Engadget reported Thursday that a group of college students had shown up with 24 hours to go, but it doesn't sound like they had much competition for a while. This is reportedly one of the coldest and wettest Junes on record in New York, so the weather may have deterred many--as well as the mess that ensued last year when AT&T activation took up to an hour. For now, at least, the weather is holding up: it's chilly and foggy, but no rain.

I'm guessing people will start to show up en masse around 5:30, hoping to pick up an iPhone 3G S on their way to work, sort of like the world's most expensive Starbucks mocha frappuccino. Speaking of that, I want coffee.

Magic elves downstairs at the Apple Store Caroline McCarthy/CNET

McCarthy, 4:29 a.m. EDT: Around 4:25 I made another loop around the line and counted 39 people total. Trucks from local TV crews are starting to show up.

There are only a few Apple Store employees here, but they're starting to trickle in. I also snapped a photo of a few of them setting things up downstairs in the subterranean Apple Store. Yeah, not too interesting just yet.

A quieter scene on 14th St. Caroline McCarthy/CNET

The line at the SoHo Apple Store around 5 a.m. EDT. Caroline McCarthy/CNET

McCarthy, 4:47 a.m. EDT at the 14th Street Apple Store: I hopped a cab downtown to the Meatpacking District, the shopping-and-nightlife hub that houses Manhattan's newest Apple Store on the corner of 14th Street and Ninth Avenue. There are about 15 people in line for the iPhone here, and most say they've been in line for less than an hour.

On a funnier note, this part of town is still hopping with stragglers out from Thursday night festivities, so the iPhone line gets some great people-watching in the form of young women in short dresses and stilettos tripping over the cobblestone streets nearby. Also: there's a 24-hour diner across the street. Ooh.

McCarthy, 5:05 a.m. EDT at the SoHo Apple Store: Similar scene here, about 15 people in line at the Apple Store on Prince Street and Greene Street, and like the 14th Street store, most people say they've been in line for less than an hour.

There are already 3G S ads in the window of the SoHo store, which (as with the 14th Street store) is not a 24/7 operation.

OK, now, I'm going to head back to Fifth Avenue for the remainder of the pre-launch wackiness. If you're in line at one of the stores and want to report observations, e-mail me or shoot me a reply on Twitter--I'm @caro.

Fifth Avenue, 5:30 a.m. Caroline McCarthy/CNET

McCarthy, 5:33 a.m. EDT at the Fifth Avenue Apple Store: Back at Fifth Avenue and the line has stretched to somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 or 90 people. There's an hour and a half left until the launch. People waiting in line have been moved off the street and into a formation set with metal barricades.

Meanwhile, more Apple Store employees are showing up in turquoise T-shirts with coffee cups in hand, and a Fox affiliate's camera crew is already taping.

McCarthy, 5:36 a.m. EDT: The rate at which people are starting to file into line is really picking up now; at least one or two per minute. I'm expecting this will pick up even more around 6 a.m.

McCarthy, 6:05 a.m. EDT: Maybe I spoke too soon: the line for the iPhone 3G S is still well south of 200 people with less than an hour left. There simply isn't a whole lot of commotion. We'll see if it picks up.

McCarthy, 6:09 a.m. EDT: Sounds like the Apple Store employees just got a pep talk, because a bunch of them just cheered from inside the subterranean Apple Store. As I recall, they did this last year, too, but it was notably more enthusiastic then. Also: the Apple Store's free public Wi-Fi is slowing down a little bit.

McCarthy, 6:17 a.m. EDT: Marketers have started to show up, including a representative from an electronics recycling site called YouRenew.com who is wearing a very impressive iPhone costume.

Caroline McCarthy/CNET

McCarthy, 6:28 a.m. EDT: The YouRenew mascot says that climbing stairs in his iPhone costume isn't particularly easy.

Representatives from electronics reseller Gazelle.com toss snacks into the crowd. Caroline McCarthy/CNET

McCarthy, 6:30 a.m. EDT: Perhaps because of the economy, or perhaps because it's only been a year since the last iteration of the iPhone came out, the marketers who've shown up at the iPhone launch are primarily from electronics resellers. In addition to YouRenew, there's also Gazelle.com, whose representatives showed up in lime green T-shirts.

The line with half an hour to go. Caroline McCarthy/CNET

McCarthy, 6:34 a.m. EDT: Less than half an hour to go. Apple Store representatives have started to block off the entrance to the store so they can start letting people in gradually when the phone goes on sale. To be honest, though, it's still far from a madhouse here.

Apple Store employees prepare. Caroline McCarthy/CNET

McCarthy, 6:43 a.m. EDT: Slightly over 15 minutes to go and the line is a couple hundred people strong right now. The real question at this point is how quickly it'll move--and whether Apple gets ensnared in activation hell yet again. Oh, and when this is all over I want a sausage and cheese omelet.

The crowd with 10 minutes left. Caroline McCarthy/CNET

McCarthy, 6:51 a.m. EDT: Less than 10 minutes left! The crowd is still surprisingly calm, despite the fact that representatives from Gazelle.com were challenging people to a Smarties-eating contest. The winner received a Gazelle gift certificate. But seriously, this early in the morning that's just gross.

McCarthy, 6:57 a.m. EDT: Very loud cheering from Apple Store employees downstairs. Almost time!

McCarthy, 7:02 a.m. EDT: And they're off! No cheering gauntlet of employees this time, but a calm stream of customers is being let in, about 10 at a time.

The first pack of iPhone 3G S buyers in New York enters the Fifth Avenue store. Caroline McCarthy/CNET

McCarthy, 7:05 a.m. EDT: Way fewer press at this launch than at past iPhone launches. I haven't had to elbow anybody out of the way!

McCarthy, 7:07 a.m. EDT: The line is moving pretty slowly; nobody's been let in for a few minutes now. The first buyers have not yet exited.

McCarthy, 7:11 a.m. EDT: Groups of 10 or so are still going in periodically. Still, nobody's out yet. Just heard an Apple Store employee say the first guy just finished his transaction.

McCarthy, 7:15 a.m. EDT: The first people to get iPhone 3G S handsets are now exiting the Fifth Avenue Apple Store.

New York's first iPhone 3G S handsets. Caroline McCarthy/CNET

McCarthy, 7:38 a.m. EDT: Left the Fifth Avenue store amid crashing Wi-Fi and a dying laptop battery. From what it looked like, the line was moving slowly but surely and people had remained quite calm. This was far less of a media spectacle than past iPhone launches, though my colleague Maggie Reardon noted that there were still more people here than at the Palm Pre launch event.

The thing to watch now: how will AT&T's activation servers hold up throughout the day?

McCarthy, 8:53 a.m. EDT: Got a few updates from people in the Northeast about their iPhone 3G S buying experiences via Twitter. Sounds like things have been going smoothly. "Picked up 3 pre-ordered iPhones at AT&T store in Allentown PA--all done and out the door in 20 minutes," Twitter user @MarkM reported. "I was #1 (for pre-order) at the AT&T 30 Rock store (in New York)--arrived at 6:30, out the door with my activated 3GS at 7:09!" user @BrianBoyd said. Which would, actually, mean that he was out of there faster than the first Apple Store customers were.

Erica Ogg, 6:41 a.m. PDT: At the downtown San Francisco Apple Store, the line stands at just under 100 right now, with about 20 minutes to go. The first two people in line arrived at 11 and 11:30 p.m. PDT Thursday night, the majority joining them around 5 this morning. It's a totally different scene than at the AT&T Store just a block away. There, 11 people are in line right now, the first arriving at 5 a.m. There are actually more employees milling about inside that AT&T Store than customers outside waiting for iPhones.

Ogg, 6:44 a.m. PDT:The line is now over 100. Many of the people I've talked to so far are just now at the end of their original two-year contract on the iPhone, and hadn't upgraded to the iPhone 3G last year. As to why they're standing in line--a few people said they thought they'd just swing by the Apple store on the way into work in the Financial District and South of Market area here in San Francisco.

The news crews are out in force. I had to roll my eyes just now when one of the local news correspondents looked into his camera and described the "hundreds" of people in line for his bit on the morning news. Eh, not quite.

Like last year, Apple employees are treating line-standers to some free coffee. A gadget reviews site called BuyMeAniPhone.com is handing out neon orange t-shirts and fliers. HonestTea just pulled up in a van to fling free bottles of tea at the crowd.

Employees at the Apple store in downtown San Francisco just before opening the doors. James Martin/CNET

Reardon, 9:54 a.m. EDT, back in New York: For the most part, iPhone activation has been going pretty smoothly and from the time people get in the store the whole process only takes about 15 minutes. John MacDonald stood in line at an AT&T store two years ago for the first generation iPhone, and he remembers well problems setting up his phone. But this time around, he said he was in and out of the store in about 10 minutes.

"I was really surprised that things went so smoothly," he said. "Two years ago the whole system crashed, but this time things have gone very well."

But there were a few customers who didn't have such an easy time. Sydney San Marin, who was the first person standing in line at the Fifth Avenue Apple store, spent nearly a half-hour getting his new iPhone 3G S up and running. Apparently, there was a glitch with his preregistration form. And Apple didn't have all of his personal information needed to get the phone activated. But all in all, San Marin was happy with his new phone.

A news copter overhead Bay Street mall in Emeryville, Calif., where there is both an Apple store and an AT&T store. Josh Lowensohn

Iman Johnson also had a little trouble activating his new iPhone and his girlfriend's phone. He said he was trying to transfer his number and his girlfriend's number from Verizon Wireless to an AT&T family plan. The Apple staff was at a loss in terms of how to make the transfer a smooth one. But Johnson said an AT&T representative in the store was able to help resolve the issue.

"I really didn't expect to have any problems activating or setting up the phone," he said. "And for a little while it looked like we were going to have to figure it out on our own, until the AT&T person came over."

To sum things up from the Apple Fifth Avenue store here in New York, things have gone pretty well so far. There are still people lined up outside the store waiting to their phones. But the line is moving quickly and people are leaving the store happy with their new gadget.

Josh Lowensohn, 6:52 a.m. PDT, from Emeryville, Calif.: (Editor's note: Lowensohn is at Bay Street mall in Emeryville, where there is both an Apple store and an AT&T store.) I have already been hassled by security--both the mall security and Apple's. How fun! Apple has two lines, one is about 50 people long, the other is about 75. The longer one is prepaid orders. The other is first-come, first-served. AT&T's line is notably smaller. Probably about 50 people. It also has two lines--the same set-up as at Apple. People were not allowed to stay overnight or queue up until 6 a.m. Mall security let them start lining up at 5:30 a.m.

Adam Jackson, the first person in line at the Apple Store in downtown San Francisco, goes in. James Martin/CNET

Ogg, 6:58 a.m. PDT: Two minutes to go. Not quite the same buzz in the air as in years past. The Apple employees just let out a loud cheer. Looks like the doors are about to open.

Ogg, 7 a.m. PDT: Doors are open. The first man in line, a blogger named Adam Jackson, enters with his video camera running. They're letting in about 20 people in the store at a time.

The line of people outside the Apple store in Emeryville, Calif. Josh Lowensohn, CNET

Lowensohn, 7:04 a.m. PDT, Emeryville: Apple store opened at 7 a.m. sharp. It's 7:04 a.m. and the AT&T store has still not opened. Talked to a resident of Bay Street Apartments (the people who live above the mall) who was irked about the launch day antics. Apparently nobody told them about it. There are also news helicopters over head and cheering people.

Lowensohn, 7:10 a.m. PDT, Emeryville: AT&T store is still not open. Even to pre-orders. AT&T rep says sales should take five minutes on pre-orders. The store is also helping people transfer over their numbers/contacts from older phones. People who did not pre-order the phone have to wait until 9 a.m. to buy one. Bummer.

Ogg, 7:15 a.m. PDT, San Francisco Apple store: Last year's first guy in line here, Dale Larson, just purchased the 3G S. He said the activation process was much faster this time around. "It is SO much better than last year," he said. In 2008 he camped overnight only to be stuck inside the Apple store trying to activate his phone for more than 2 hours. Apple ended up giving him a free 16GB iPhone 3G for his troubles. Today he left with a 3G S in hand in about 10 minutes, and yes, he paid this time.

Adam Moore, activating his new iPhone 3G S at the downtown San Francisco Apple store. James Martin/CNET

Lowensohn, 7:16 a.m. PDT, Emeryville: Customers are just beginning to come out of the Apple store. Could this mean lines aren't going to be as long as last year? The gender ratio is about 5-to-1 men to women. Oh, and at the AT&T store line, I overhear: "I've got to be at work in an hour. My boss is going to kill me."

Reardon, 10:18 a.m. EDT, back in New York: I stopped by the AT&T store in Times Square on my way back to the CBS Interactive offices on 28th Street, and I swear I heard crickets chirping. Well, not exactly, but there was no line outside the store. And it looked like a normal day for the AT&T flagship store in the heart of New York City.

AT&T store in Times Square Marguerite Reardon/CNET

I stood around for about 20 minutes and saw lots of people wander into the store and then quickly leave. Only one person appeared to be carrying a newly purchased iPhone 3G S, but she was walking too quickly for me to catch up to her as she headed for the subway. Other people exiting the store, either left empty-handed or had bought other phones.

Collins Osei stopped by the AT&T store Friday morning to pick up a new Nokia 2600. Ironically, Osei had been an iPhone 3G customer. But his phone was recently stolen. Osei said that replacing his old iPhone with a new one was too expensive since he is still within his two-year contract. He only paid $43 for his new Nokia 2600, a bargain considering it would have cost him $599 to replace his stolen iPhone with a new iPhone 3G S.

But he also said he was tired of paying the additional $30 a month data charge that is mandatory with the iPhone.

"The iPhone plan was just too expensive," he said. "I don't really need the Internet on my phone. But with the iPhone you still have to pay for the service. So I went back to a regular phone. And now I'm on a plan that costs $39.99 a month."

Lowensohn, 7:26 a.m. PDT, Emeryville: AT&T is now letting pre-order people in one at a time. Saw an AT&T customer come in and out in about 10 minutes. Even though the lines are smaller, AT&T store has far fewer people on staff to handle the activations. As many on crowd control as doing the sales inside (about 10 total).

Ogg, 7:31 a.m. PDT, San Francisco: People are still streaming into the Union Square Apple Store, but the line is staying at about 120 people, stretching about one city block. The activation process seems to be much smoother than last year's disaster. People here are reporting an average of about five minutes to purchase and activate the 3G S.

Ogg, 7:54 a.m. PDT, San Francisco: Things in downtown SF are humming along. No major issues this year. We'll check back in later today with more about the launch day events as well as video from SF and New York.

Lowensohn, 8:21 a.m. PDT, Emeryville: Lines at Apple have not changed. A little over 100 remain between the two. However AT&T's pre-order line has been cleared. The dozen or so people in the 9 a.m. "first-come, first-served" line are still patiently waiting, although since the pre-order line is now empty, they're getting restless.

Dexter Duarte activates his phone at the Apple store in downtown San Francisco. James Martin/CNET