Why Apple product launches are legendary

Rumour mills on blogs and tech websites go into overdrive weeks, months or even years (particularly in the case of the iPhone) prior to any suspected launch. All the while journalists and bloggers scratch up snippets of information to present to their readers. Each rushing to publish like a faithful Labrador who’s just fetched a favourite ball. I know, because I’ve done it!

Journalists, and hacks alike, entice insiders with favours for information. While Apple are rumoured to seed misinformation within their own ranks to trip up and sniff out potential fifth columnists. All because some employees or suppliers for a fleeting moment of madness see the intrigue and prestige of being part of a rumour as being more valuable to them than their job or contract. Remember the fabled Asteroid breakout box which brought down Think Secret?

Meanwhile social media wannabes, the equivalents in our industry of Paris or Perez Hilton, desperately try to stay relevant with bogus tweets or Facebook posts hinting at some hitherto unknown piece of inside information.

Once the product comes to market people have been known to fly half way round the world to snag their devices early. Some simply skip work, college, or school, to sleep on the pavement outside stores overnight to queue, and hopefully pick up their devices on launch day.

But let’s also remember Apple products don’t always materialise. Just like the many false starts we had with the iPhone, and the countless new Newton rumours. And what about the PowerBook G5! Remember that one? Or the disappointments we have at various shows and the World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC) where predicted product specification bumps, or new software, simply don’t appear. Right now some of the Apple faithful are complaining that Apple’s portable lines are not being updated in a timely fashion, and “real” computer users are suffering because of the iPad, iPhone and iPod taking Apple’s focus from their main business. One guy even emailed Steve, and got a typically short and almost cryptic email reply saying simply “Not to worry”. But let’s make no mistake, like it or not, Apple’s real business is currently very much mobile devices. And even it’s traditional portable computers play second fiddle to the iPhone, iPod Touch and the iPad.

Nowadays of course we actually don’t have to queue outside stores for new toys. We can just give Apple money via it’s website for products sight unseen. Some of which aren’t even in manufacture at the time of ordering!! Often their software and even their final hardware specs, and even their components are in flux. Nevertheless the magic elves who work in China will load them all onto a pallet at some point in the future, and FedEx will fly them to us like Santa Claus.

This is exactly the case with the iPad. In the last few weeks hundreds of thousands of iPad devices have been purchased on the strength of one man’s sales pitch. Oh, and a smattering of web videos. That man is Steve Jobs. And he is someone who is revered for possessing something which is euphemistically called an ‘RDF’. A Reality Distortion Field. I know he has it. I’ve experienced it.

But then even an old industry hack like me ordered my last 17″ Unibody MacBook Pro the same way. Sight unseen. Bought on the basis of well earned trust from Apple, and some specs and pictures on a web page for a product they promised would do all it said, and more. Come to think of it I did that with my fist 17″ PowerBook G4, and my 17″ MacBook Pro immediately after that. And my Newton, my PowerBook 170, and my PowerBook 540c,and my G5, and several other desktop and laptop devices from Apple over the years. I still have them all too! And they all still work! What other company other than perhaps Ferrari, Bang and Olufsen or Porsche can boost this kind of faith from it’s customers in it’s products?

When people are finally able to buy these new gadgets some of those individuals use their initial order allocation to make a fast buck on eBay by selling their second or third device at a premium. This has happened with other devices from other manufacturers. Like the Sony PS3 at launch. But it is unprecedented how this happens with pretty much every product Apple puts out.

Most recently we had this madness with the iPhone. And all this will happen to some degree or other again with the iPad next week. Many will have purchased their initial allocation of 2, in the US with the aim of making back the price of the iPad they choose to keep. Some will sell both of their allocation of iPads, and buy another later. Some will jealously guard the one they scraped cash together to buy, and wait with baited breath for a knock at the door. I’ve done that too!

Some Apple ‘cultists’ work in networks with friends and colleagues to ensure delivery of units to people outside of Apple’s initial launch umbrella. Which is typically limited to the US initially. Within days you’ll be able to find iPads for premium prices on all global regions of Craig’s List and eBay.

Of course, once we get them there is the inevitable un-boxing videos and pictures that some of us will post to our blogs, or on YouTube. Only the smell of a new car can come even close to rivalling the smell and touch of new Apple packaging. Even if the amount of goodies, stickers, cables, and even packaging that you get with your new toy has declined alarmingly in recent years! I almost cried when I got my 3G iPod Touch. It came in a box not far removed from something I’d expect to get a set of cheap headphones in. But even so it was still a stylish plastic box!

And I’ve just been talking about the customers of this company so far! I haven’t even started talking about the armies of people who work for more organised Apple grey import and export outfits.

Behind the scenes elsewhere, entire industries of web sites, and black market organisations exist to ship Apple products around the world and supply outlets like MBK in Bangkok with iPhones, iPod Touches or iPads on the same day as people in the US are buying them legitimately. Early in the iPhone’s lifetime we had them literally being stolen from warehouses in parts of Europe for distribution in other parts of the globe where the devices were in short supply. And these grey imports typically fetch 2 to 3 times the real retail value of the same “toys” on Apple’s web site.

At the height of iPhone mania people were being paid to fly to the US to sign up for phone contracts in blocks of 10 or 20 and fly back to Asia with the phones to re-sell. I still don’t know quite how these groups were getting away with this, as they presumably had to sign up for some kind of telecoms contract in the US to get these phones. But when people couldn’t get them in the US you couldn’t move for them in Asian markets. iPhones were going for $1000 dollars or more in markets in Hong Kong, Thailand and Malaysia that I knew of. And I am not just talking about the large markets. You could find the 3GS iPhone a couple of days after launch in my local mall in Thailand.

The iPad launch will be no exception. I’ve already been contacted by numerous people asking me if I have sources for iPads on launch day. As well as having been contacted by people who want to sell me iPads on launch day. One friend says if I can’t help he will take his 25,000 Baht ($780US) he has saved to a store he got his iPhone from on launch day, and get his new iPad there. And he expects, as I do, that he’ll find one too. Although he’ll probably be asked to pay more then he wants to really. But he’ll still pay it. And that will be for a base model that retails at $499 in the US.

Such is the power and attraction of Apple products on launch day. It seems that we may see a little bit of the bad old Apple history replay itself with the iPad. As I (and others) predicted, and we reported, it seems that the iPad production lines have not been running smoothly. US pre-orders are already closed for launch day. And people outside the US are starting to panic as it seems that we’re going to go through a period where production has to catch up with demand. In recent years, and for new devotees of all things Apple this will seem bizarre and frustrating. But for those of us that have been around for a while we’ve seen this all beforeÉ

Sure other manufacturers, and game publishers have this effect on their customers once in while. We all remember the PS3 launch. Or Halo launches. And the Wii. But Apple products do this consistently each and every product launch. Why is that? Apple did seem to limit it’s launch numbers almost deliberately in the past as a marketing ploy. Limited supply has an effect on people wanting things after all, and drives the hype machine. Something Apple used to have to worry about more, but really don’t have to these days. More recently it actually seems that this is simply because Apple conservatively estimated demand (playing it safe as launching new tech has it’s risks) and was overwhelmed, or (as is the case tie the iPad) seems to have been let down by suppliers and manufacturers to some degree.

When Apple launched the Newton I spent most of the day before sitting in Virtuality PLCs office on the phone. Virtuality was the Virtual Reality company I worked for at the time. I was on the phone to shops in the US with my credit card in hand arranging the purchase and shipping of my new toy from the US as soon as possible after they received stock. A few hours later I was on an overnight run to the FedEx depot in Reading to pick up my package as it was walked out of the door of customs there. The FedEx guy thought I was mad sitting in my car in the dark on a trading estate at 4am. These days I would probably get arrested under some kind of anti-terror law if I behaved that way. I had cash on hand to deal with the customs charges. I didn’t care. Because in those days Apple kit sold at an exchange rate of £1 to $1 in the UK. Even though the dollar was half the value of the pound. So even if my import duty worked out at 100% I still paid less for my Newton than waiting to buy it in the UK legitimately. And of course I got it on day one, give or take US to UK flight times!

Nowadays things are not so bad. Those of us outside the US still have to wait longer for critical launches. But even here in Thailand I can have stuff shipped to my door from Apple’s factories in China free of charge. And at almost the same price as the product in the US. How things have changed!

I myself have “been there done and done that” with regards to Apple launches over the years many times. And I thought I might have grown out of if by now. But even I, sitting in Bangkok, am smugly self assured in the knowledge that I will have an iPad on or around the 3rd of April. It’s simply a matter of how long the plane from the US takes to get here. Yes, I got a friend to pick me one up! And I owe him a slap up dinner when he gets to Bangkok! And I am genuinely excited about the iPad. Not because it’s a computer, or a games machine. But because it’s one step closer to the mythical “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” that we’ve all wanted from being a kid. The iPhone is the Star Trek Communicator to the iPads “Hitchhikers Guide”. I vaguely hoped that I could have my touch screen, portable device for “making stuff” with the iPod Touch or the iPhone. But they are not quite big enough. Great as they are. The iPad, however, is. It’s a potential fount of all knowledge with it’s internet connection, and a creation tool for writing and editing media. It’s something that I can sprawl on a sofa holding and create with. Or take to bed for jotting down flashes of inspiration. And if I am not inspired I can read, play music, surf the web or any number of things we’re all looking forward to doing on it while we wait for inspiration to strike!

One of the first things I want to do with it is have an app that simply says “Don’t Panic!” in big letters across the full screen. As I am sure a million other geeks out there will also put together either in code, or in a Pages Document the first day they have it too. I may even wrap a towel around my head!

Good times! What do you plan to do with your iPad on the first day you have it? And have you got any first day stories to share with us either about the iPad, or some other product from Apple?

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Stephen NorthcottWhy Apple product launches are legendary