Queuing for kudos or an iPhone 3G?

iPhone queue 29th July, Palo Alto, CA

At the Apple Store on University Avenue in Palo Alto this morning there was a queue of around 25 people, some had brought books, others were playing with gadgets, such as iPhone’s (Mk.1) or iPods, and one chap was sat on the pavement with a laptop resting on his knees going through his email. All of these people were in line for one thing – an iPhone 3G.

Since the initial release of the device on the 11th of July and the surrounding furore, a rhythm has settled in of stock being shipped and subsequently selling out almost immediately – certainly at the more popular locations. It is possible to monitor availability via the apple website, so every day after 9pm the special map of stores is interrogated by those desirous of an iPhone for the green dots of availability. I spoke with a couple of those in the queue at the Palo Alto store, one was a local, the other had made the visit especially. Both were adamant that it is ‘worth it’, worth the wait. The operation of these queues has clearly become systematised. Queuers are provided with a ticket, this ticket is a ‘guarantee’ of the opportunity to purchase once they are admitted.

11th July queue outside Apple Store, Palo Alto, CA

I also happened to be in Palo Alto on the 11th, ‘launch’ day, and the queue at 11am was around the block. The release of a hotly anticipated product, especially one created by apple, now seems to provoke a trend: the hardcore turn up one or more days in advance and camp (literally) outside the shop, others arrive at dawn and join the throng. Media coverage ensues and many wonder what on earth the fuss is about. In conversation with other spectators and with some of those who have queued, it seems to me that the purchase of the device itself is only a part of the motivation – it is also, substantially, about being a part of an event. The experience of queuing for these prized item, and the stories one might attach, appears to have become culturally significant.

There is little doubt that the iPhone has marked a touchstone in mobile phone development and the hysteria around the device and the promises of advancement elides some interesting issues. It is of course a significant device for those interesting in location-based services, and perhaps for those interested in ubicomp. However, the device does not herald a revolution – one must bare in mind that the iPhone is, what wireless market researcher Iain Gillott has called, a ‘vertically integrated’ device. It is closely controlled platform attached to a specific, proprietary network. This is both a cause of the devices success and the very reason why the iPhone is NOT going to fulfill many of the hopes attached to it. As Gillott said at the Wireless Communications Alliance’s ‘4G’ summit earlier this month, the iPhone has been a victory for the sales and marketing people at AT&T but a pain in the proverbial for those managing the network. An illustration of this is the cynical response to the question ‘why did apple withdraw the iPhone[1] over two months before the release of the iPhone 3G?’ – because the networking people at AT&T said so. Presumably those same cynics would now suggest that there is a slow release of the 3G model not because of stock bottlenecks but because of fears over network capacity. Who knows where the truth lies…

Despite my sympathies for the claims of the iPhone 3G being something like ubiquitous computing (depending on what you mean by ubicomp!) I would ultimately raise the proprietary nature of the phone and network as a stumbling block. To write apps, developers pretty much have to use the ‘App Store‘ – which requires the apps to be approved by AT&T and the other big carriers that have signed deals with Apple. The device has to profit (and not damage) Apple and the networks, any app that threatens this will be unlikely to see the light of day. I think, although I’m unsure, that this precludes certain types of connectivity that might be used in context-awareness for example (i.e. p2p).

Why do I blog this? The practice of queuing as an experience of an event, with perceived significance, is an interesting socio-geographical phenomenon. The links between the iPhone product line and ubicomp also open up interesting questions.

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