With the dawn of the new age of cellphones approaching in less than 2 days, I started thinking about technology, and how human anticipation of new technology has occurred.
This whole phenomenon of people camping overnight for a new product is something rather recent. Sure, we all know about the crazy Star Wars and Lord of the Rings fans who pitch tents and forsake creature comforts to buy tickets for first day showings, but that's entertainment, and people have been lining up for entertainment for centuries.
What happens on Friday, however is not the opening of a new movie or amusement park, but the release of the iPhone, a highly anticipated cellphone from Apple. Apple in the past has made the products available as soon the announcement is made. The iPhone has had a severely different play from all of Apple's other current products -- the release date of the iPhone was known weeks in advance, and as a result, people have already started lining up in order to be the first to lay ownership of the iPhone. People don't line up for new iPods, MacBooks, AppleTV or any other Apple branded products, but for some reason, people feel inclined to line up for the iPod cellphone.
To step things back a little bit, the last couple of camping lines for electronics has mostly been in the field of video game systems. People just don't do midnight sales or anticipate the release of a new DVD player or vacuum cleaner the same way people seem to be willing to wait for the latest video game system. The Wii had campers. The PS3 had campers as well, which was highly televised, with some people waiting out for days. The Xbox360 also had campers (and a slew of price gouging by big retailers), but we didn't have campers for the previous generation of game systems. PS2, GameCube and XBox were all readily available on their release date, and while all three sold out, they didn't involve camping. Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, Genesis, Saturn, Dreamcast, not one of these required the average person to camp to receive one on launch day. You walked into a store, asked if they had it and purchased it if they did. In most cases, one went to Fry's or Toys 'R' Us where their floor was littered with shipping palettes of the systems. So I'd say that this whole lifestyle of camping for consumer electronics started back in November of 2005 with the launch of the XBox360.
The reason for the camping of the XBox360 had to do with the timing; Christmas shopping season was about to start, and with known shortages of the new system, people were desperate to obtain one. Nintendo and Sony's newest game systems wouldn't release for another year, which, Microsoft hoped could get them a head start on the marketplace. Any retailer will tell you that all game systems sell out at Christmastime. It doesn't matter how bad the system is, someone's grandmother will come in, see it on the store shelf and purchase it for her grandchildren, who will say thank you and smile, but look upon the system in the same way that one looks upon handmade clothes received for birthdays when they were 10.
I have always harbored suspicions that Microsoft engineered the shortages for the XBox360 as a form of free advertising, a form that we've seen repeated with Sony and Nintendo's latest offerings. In fact, as I write this, the Nintendo Wii is still largely unavailable and outsells Sony's PS3 on a scale of over 5 to 1 in America.
With Microsoft, they've long held a tradition of encouraging retailers to have midnight sales, and in fact, part of the origin of the midnight sales lies with Microsoft and an operating system known as MS-DOS 6.0. MS-DOS 6.0 was released in 1993. In those days operating systems were a fierce market, with products like OS/2 and DR-DOS competing to be the OS on your PC. CompUSA and other computer retailers were bound by an agreement not to sell the product until a specified date, which meant that legally they could start doing so at midnight of that day. Since this was a product that people needed on their computers (and because upgrading to a new OS was much easier than it is now) retailers figured out that if they could be the first one to sell the product, they could get a head start on their competition, which would be closed until morning. Retailers found this beneficial, and every operating system released by Microsoft since then has had a midnight release: Microsoft Vista, Windows XP, Windows 2000, Windows 98, and Windows 95. Each of these midnight sales have each helped propel headlines in the local paper the next day such as "Microsoft sells 500 copies of Windows 95 at Fry's after midnight", which in addition to all the other advertising, promotes the availability of something in the pre-internet age, when people relied on word of mouth and telephone calls to figure out the availability of a product.
We have the internet now, and the world is incredibly and openly accessible; no longer do I need to drive to multiple stores throughout town to compare prices, I can now call someone using my cellphone who can look up the prices online. I can have reminders sent to my e-mail about the release dates of various products, and rather than anxiously waiting in line for a product, I can pre-order it, and have it sent to me on the day of release. That was where the world was headed; then somewhere along the line, some bozo somewhere in a suit decided that on-line retail's limitation was going to be brick and mortar's strength, and that was being able to get the product in the consumers' hands before delivery services could make their deliveries.
I've seen countless movies at midnight showings -- those are fun because the people in the crowd genuinely want to see the movie, and the crowd interaction is vastly different; it's like seeing a film with 800 fanatical fans. They cheer at the heroes, they boo and hiss at the villains, and before the show they draw their lightsabers and have duels before the show starts. Midnight retail experiences are something else all together; people are cordoned into lines with stanchions, much as you would see at the Happiest Place on Earth, but the environment there is anything but happy; people have been sitting out for hours, maybe even days in some cases, and they're cranky, eager to fork over their cash so that they can go home, list it on eBay and be done with it all. They're afraid of supply running out before the line gets to them, and everyone is on edge, wondering if that guy chatting with the people in front is a reporter or a cutter. Not everyone out there is a fan, but everyone else out there is competition. These midnight sales have grown more popular over recent years, and show no signs of stopping; as for myself, I'd rather get sleep and know that UPS will bring it over in the next day or two.
Having a line for a cellphone is unheard of and even lines for the newest iPod is unheard of. But the iPhone is the answer to attaining nothing short of technological rapture, the symbolic object of lust for nerds and geeks everywhere. For them, this is their pilgrimage, in patient waiting for Apple's answer to ubiquitous computing. The lines outside of stores are products of the hype machine, fears of shortages, and a bit of media sensationalism. It's not as if these iPhones are going to be some Apple iPhone Premiere Limited Edition, they're a revision 1 product, which will no doubt be followed by revision 1.5, and revision 2 and so on with more and better features.