Elgan: Why do people wait in line for iPhones?

Dispatch from the iPhone 4S line in Steve Wozniak's Silicon Valley town

SOMEWHERE IN LINE -- I did something this week that I've never done before: I camped out on the sidewalk all night waiting in line for the new iPhone.

The iPhone 4S became available in Apple stores and elsewhere Friday in the U.S., Canada, Australia, the U.K., France, Germany and Japan.

Long lines formed at Apple stores in all of those countries. But one unique feature of the line I was in is that the guy at the head of the queue was Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. He arrived at noon to make sure he'd be first.

(I happen to live in the same Silicon Valley town as Woz. Here's a short interview I filmed on my now-obsolete iPhone 4.)

One unique aspect of all the iPhone lines this time around is that many Apple stores still have impromptu tributes to Apple's late CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs -- flowers, candles, apples and sticky notes.

But the idea of queuing up for an Apple product is not new. Every time Apple launches a new iPhone or iPad, lines form at Apple stores all over the world.

I hit the sidewalk at about 4 p.m. the day before the iPhone 4S was due to go on sale; that made me the seventh person in line. The store was going to open at 8 a.m., so it was 16 hours of waiting. My son and I brought chairs, books and gadgets to kill the time. We spent most of the evening chatting with other line dwellers, including Woz, about everything from Apple products to Steve Jobs to Dancing with the Stars.

It's a strange practice, this standing in line business. After all, the option to pre-order became available last week. Apple claims to have sold more than a million pre-ordered iPhones by noon on the first day. Those pre-ordered phones should have arrived by Friday morning via mail. And even though current supplies are limited, the phones will become easily (and conveniently) available in large numbers in a few weeks to anyone who just saunters into any Apple store.

Why do Apple fans all over the world do this? Why did I do it? And why would Wozniak, who as co-founder could have had a free case of iPhones delivered a month ago with a simple phone call?

Critics have their own theories. Apple fans are crazy, deluded, pathetic and/or stupid, for example. But dismissing the phenomenon is too easy, and not particularly accurate.

First, and most obvious, human beings have enthusiasms. It's human nature. Some people go to dog shows. Other people line up for a chance to see their favorite singers or movie stars. People travel halfway across North America to attend Comicon, the Oshkosh air show or the CrossFit games. Some people are car nerds. Other people are Lego nerds. Still others are food nerds.

Apple fans are nerd nerds, the most concentrated brand.

An Apple launch serves as a local event for expressing and indulging enthusiasm for consumer electronics in general and the newest Apple thing in particular.

Another reason to wait in line, as I discovered by grilling a few line mates, is that many here have an unusual appreciation for the achievement represented by a new device like the iPhone 4S. While some expected more -- specifically something with the number "5" carved into it -- the latest iPhone is arguably the greatest gadget every made.

Steve Wozniak and Mike Elgan
The author (right) waits in line with new pal Steve Wozniak at an Apple store in Silicon Valley.
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