3:01AM came very quickly.
That's when iPhone 5S orders went live for us east coast-ers on Friday, 9/20/13. What was particularly troubling about this year's iPhone launch was the lack of pre-orders, which was due to supply issues. In years past the new model was available for free launch-day delivery, but not this year. To add insult to injury, there was no option for in-store launch day pickup when orders went live. The best you could do was show up at a store and hope they had your desired combination of color, capacity, and carrier (silver, 64GB, Verizon in my case).
Shipping times on the gold iPhone 5S went from 1-3 days to 5-7 in a matter of minutes, then changed to simply 'October' (as of this writing, all three metal finishes are listed as shipping in 'October'). Supply of the silver and space gray finishes were tight as well, but not nearly as bad as gold, which appears to be the overwhelmingly popular choice. I was able to order a 16GB gold Verizon device for my mom (her first cell phone ever, just let that soak in), but due to a few precious minutes wasted on attempting to order my own phone for in-store pickup (fail) it will be shipping in 5-7 days.
I knew that there was going to be high demand for the gold models at this launch, so I expected a very serious line, seriously early, and intended on getting there as early as possible. Now that the order is placed and it's 3:15AM - do you go back to bed for an hour then go? What's an hour going to buy you in terms of consciousness? I said screw it and headed out, with the concession that I'd stop for breakfast on the way (Editors note: Arriving at a 24 hour McDonalds at 3:57AM, you will be told that breakfast begins in 3 minutes and will have to wait.).
Expecting an experience similar to the iPhone 4 launch I attended, I headed over to the Pheasant Lane Mall in Nashua, NH for about 4AM (the Apple store is inside). You'll have to read about my experience during that launch that launch in the last link, but in a nutshell it was very disorganized. This year was no different, and again was the fault of some combination of SImon (the company that owns the Pheasant Lane Mall), the security company they employ, and Apple, who should have anticipated this and planned accordingly.
The crowd at the Nashua mall made a gentleman carrying a number of expensive electronic devices and about to purchase another feel, in a word, nervous. At 4:30AM there were at least 100 high school aged kids milling around a parking lot just off of the mall property (where they had been shoed by mall security and the Nashua PD). Let's just say, these kids weren't on the water polo team. There was a lot of smoking, blasting of spanish music out of old Civics with 8" diameter mufflers, and one overheard story of how this gentleman kicked another gentleman in the head until he broke several teeth for landing his mother in jail. When this group descended upon the entrance of the mall to wait in 'line', they all crowded around the door in a giant mass and continued the chain smoking. Up until mall security and the Nashua PD arrived to kick everyone off the property again, I watched as car after car came by, unloading 2-3 more teens at a time. They complied remarkably well to the police, who instructed them that they would not be receiving their phones this morning if they did not get the hell out.
Judging by the demographic and the fact that I heard zero people discussing how excited they were to get their new phones, it was quite clear that these kids were not buying phones from themselves. Instead, they were likely employed by a third party to purchase them on release day and re-sell them on the open market, getting around the 2 device per person limit. It doesn't take much more than an ebay search to see that this is a very profitable venture. The secondary market for these phones is flourishing, especially outside the US, but at the expense of a crappy release day experience for people who are buying for themselves. I was up against a huge crowd of teenagers desperate to make a couple hundred dollars off of flipping these phones, and these weren't exactly wholesome kids.
On the walk back to off-mall-property parking lot, where a lively reggaeton dance party had spontaneously popped up with music pumping from open car doors, I decided that maybe this scene wasn't for me. There would be no line, and it would have not been smart to fight through this crowd to get to the front. And even if I did get one, would I make it back to my car without getting mugged? Luckily, I had been talking to another release-day goer who was posted up at the Chestnut Hill Mall in Newton, MA. It was a 35 minute drive down there, and a lower profile Apple store. Would they have enough phones? Would hundreds more show up before I got there? I took a similar risk for iPad 2 release day and was almost screwed out of one by calling an audible (sports reference!) and heading to a different target.
35 minutes later I was about 40 deep in a line of mostly middle aged, pleasant, Starbucks toting Boston suburbians. Not only was the line short, but I was welcomed into a small group of folks who had become quick in-line friends. Instead of mall security being upset that we had lined up outside by the mall entrance (this too was a Simon mall), they opened the doors early and let us sit inside.
During our wait Apple employees came out and offered us bottles of water, coffee, and tea. While we were getting poured freshly brewed Pete's coffee with an array of artificial sweeteners I assume that teargas was being used in Nashua to keep the crowds at bay. The contrast between these two locations was stark to say the least.
It was all fun and games until a pair of Apple store employees came by with a basket of cards representing their stock of phones. Starting at the front of the line, they worked their way back, handing out up to two cards per person. When they got to me, I asked for a silver 64GB Verizon device and they responded with "Nope, how about space gray?". They were completely out of silver and gold phones - I was shocked. In typical Apple fashion they were excellent at dodging our prodding questions but as it turned out, there was only one gold phone for sale that day (a 64GB one, I think on AT&T), and they were poorly stocked on the silver ones. Defeated, I accepted my fate but ordered a silver one via the Apple store app for delivery in a couple weeks (the idea being that I'd return the black one).
It wasn't long before 8AM came and people started trickling into the store - each customer paired with an employee who would handle their transaction from start to finish. It's a nice system once you're in there and they don't rush you at all, much to the dismay of the rest of the line. Once it was my turn to have a hearty handshake with the employee I was paired with and led into the store, I was able to see the other new phones. As he disappeared in the back to collect mine, I descended upon the table of display units and poured over the silver and gold ones to see what I was missing out on.
All I can say about the gold one is that you have to see it in person. All the negative reactions I've heard so far have been from people who had only seen it through pictures and Apple renders. All the tech news guys who were at the hands on in Cupertino said it gorgeous, and more of a champagne color than the bright gold we normally associate with that description. I absolutely agree. Given the choice between the silver one and the gold one - it's gold all the way baby.
After seeing all three of the phones in person I ended up sticking with black, surprisingly enough. I had originally decided on either silver or gold because my current iPhone 5 is black and I wanted to change it up. Over the course of several days I decided I wanted gold, then silver, then whatever Jony Ive had*, and then after all that I had no choice. The black with 'space gray' metal finish looks like something that does indeed belong in outer space. The metal finish is much lighter than on the 5 (presumably to make the accumulated dings and scratches less noticeable) and the much lighter colored chamfers make it look like there's a metal ring around the device when you look at it head on. In the latest The Talk Show podcast, John Gruber says that light colored chamfer reminds him of the look of the original iPhone and I totally agree. It looks like an ultra futuristic version of that phone, and I've cancelled my silver phone order.
It is safe to say that if I ever have to get up at 3AM then wait in line all morning for another Apple device I will NOT be going back to the Nashua Apple store ever again. It's Chestnut Hill all the way from here on. Although it all ended up working out, I wonder if the Nashua store had more silver and gold devices in stock since that they are much more heavily trafficked. It certainly wasn't worth getting trampled or mugged to find out.
* I spent a long time searching for any hint of what metal finish Jony Ive (the man responsible for design at Apple) chose for his 5S and didn't find anything conclusive. The recent Bloomberg Businessweek article features a picture of Federighi, Cook, and Ive diddling with the new phones and it's easy to see that Ive is using the gold one. However, I can't imagine that Tim Cook would have a green 5C as his primary phone, so I think the picture has nothing to do with reality. My best guess is that Ive would prefer the silver device, since that seems to be the more widespread Apple aesthetic, permeating through their products and into the design of their stores as well.