Trang Le sat outside a shuttered-up Apple Store Thursday night, wrapped in a jacket as the marine layer rolled in from the San Francisco Bay and temperatures dipped below 60 degrees. "Do you think I'm crazy?" she asked me.
It wasn't an off-base question. All the other shops in Emeryville's Bay Street retail district were locked up tight, and it would be another 10 hours before the Apple Store Le and her husband were camped out in front of opened its doors to sell the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. So I answered her question with one of my own: Was this the first time Le had ever waited overnight just to buy a smartphone?
Yes, it was, the Oakland, California, resident told me.
So I had to be honest that her actions sounded somewhat crazy. "Well, maybe just a little," I said. "But it's the sort of thing everybody should do at least once."
"I can knock it off my bucket list," Le agreed.
If Le is crazy, then so are thousands of other iPhone devotees who queued up in front of Apple Stores across the country as the company's iPhone 6 and 6 Plus went on sale Friday. Long lines in front of Apple Stores are nothing new when it comes to Apple's annual smartphone rollout. The yearly addition of new features to Apple's flagship mobile device inevitably leads to a long line of shoppers outside Apple retail outlets whenever the new iPhones go on sale.
But now that you can pre-order an iPhone before it arrives on retail shelves — Apple started taking orders for this latest batch on Sept. 12 — it's easy to wonder why the crowds still turn out for an iPhone launch.
That's certainly what Pablo Jimenez wondered as he eyeballed the city-block-long line outside Apple's flagship San Francisco store on Stockton Street. "We wanted to give it a try," Jimenez told me as we stood near the back of an 80-person-deep line 12 hours before the Apple Store would open its doors. "But it's just a phone."
"It's just hardware," agreed his friend, Oscar Jimenez — no relation, both Jimenezes told me. The two of them like iPhones well enough, they both insisted, but not so much that they'd be willing to camp out overnight, or even longer. (The person at the front of the line at Apple's downtown San Francisco store had been there since 6 p.m. Wednesday, or some 38 hours before any customers could actually lay their hands on an iPhone.)
"We can wait [to get an iPhone 6], like normal people," Oscar Jimenez said.
Jimenez gave a harsh assessment of the scene outside the San Francisco Apple Store, but it was hard to argue with him under the circumstances. Thanks to an ongoing construction project, crews were ripping up a section of Stockton Street in front of the store, with a wall erected at the edge of the sidewalk.
People sitting in the iPhone line could camp out in one lane of the sidewalk, with their backs to the temporary wall; pedestrians shuffled down the other lane. The effect was like waiting to buy an iPhone in one of the trenches on the Death Star, only without X-Wing fighters racing nearby to find a womp-rat-sized exhaust port. Why would anyone endure that?
It wasn't the most welcoming scene for would-be iPhone 6 shoppers, especially when you consider that just 120 steps away on Market Street, a Verizon store would open its doors at the same time Friday morning as the Apple Store, with the new iPhones on sale. Walk a little further down Market and you'd find AT&T and T-Mobile stores offering the same iPhones. (That's the same T-Mobile store where the magenta T-shirt-wearing T-Mobile CEO John Legere hosted an Uncarrier event a week ago.) And no one was lined up at any of those outlets.
So why would seemingly normal people endure a night in a line? Quite simply, because they want an iPhone now, and they reasoned that the Apple Store would have a bigger selection of devices than what carriers might have to offer on Friday.
That's what landed Raj Kaur and her boyfriend eight spots back of the front of the line in San Francisco. They had tried pre-ordering phones last week, along with the rest of the known world. (Apple says it tallied a record 4 million pre-orders last Friday.) With Apple's website estimating that the phones wouldn't arrive until mid-November, Kaur said she and her boyfriend "just decided, 'Let's do this.'" They canceled the orders and arrived at the Apple Store just after midnight on Thursday morning, hoping for instant gratification.
Waiting in line together gave Kaur and her boyfriend more than just someone to talk to (other than pesky reporters asking questions about iPhone queues). One person could also hold a spot in line while the other ran to get food, stretch his or her legs, or heed nature's call — perhaps the one thing more pressing than the desire for a new iPhone. "That's why you need two people," Kaur said.
Several people waiting Thursday night at the San Francisco and Emeryville Apple Stores were in the same boat as Kaur and Le; they had tried placing a pre-order, but faced a wait until mid-October or later before they'd have an iPhone 6 in hand. Many others in line were there for more capitalistic reasons: They were planning on reselling their newly acquired devices, or at least holding a spot for someone else who would.
But others wound up in line because of fortunate timing. Marc Benz is from Switzerland, which isn't one of the 10 countries where the iPhone 6 goes on sale Friday. But Benz happened to be in San Francisco at the same time Apple was revamping its phone lineup, so he's going home with an iPhone 6.
"In Switzerland, it's not the same hype," said Benz, looking around at the line. "Everyone here's very nice. Everyone has the same interests."
And that may help explain why you'll find long lines in front of Apple Stores every time the company rolls out its latest mobile device. Apple enjoys the kind of affinity with its customers that's the envy of its rivals, said Darrin Duber-Smith, a marketing professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver. "Affinity is something we have for college sports and pro teams," Duber-Smith said. "It's very rare we see it in a brand."
Duber-Smith said he wonders how long Apple can maintain the sort of bond with customers that inspires them to brave an overnight wait for a smartphone. After all, Android holds the dominant market share, nearly 85 percent during the second quarter of 2014, according to the latest figures from market research firm IDC. Anecdotally, Duber-Smith said that the students in his class seem more interested in phones from Samsung, the top smartphone maker according to market share.
(Apple might counter that there's more to success than market share: In its most recent fiscal quarter, the company sold 35 million phones, the most everduring the April-to-June quarter, despite last updating its iPhone lineup in September 2013.)
"Is Apple really resonating with the next generation of consumers?" Duber-Smith asked. "The evidence suggests not."
Sitting in front of the San Francisco Apple Store, Nicholas Bertelsen said he wasn't terribly concerned with Apple's ability to retain customer loyalty. He was just happy that he happened to be in the United States when the iPhone 6 arrived, he said. Bertelsen splits his time living in Denmark and San Francisco, and this was the first time that one of his U.S. stays coincided with an iPhone launch. So he found himself waiting outside the Apple Store, chatting away with Timothy Noguera of San Francisco, as the two waited for 8 a.m. Friday to roll around.
"We're friends now," Noguera said, pointing to Bertelsen.