SAN FRANCISCO--What a difference a year makes.
Apple released its third-generation iPhone Friday, but considerably smaller and quieter crowds came out for the smartphone's debut. It was a stark contrast to the frenzied first day sales of the original iPhone and last year's iPhone 3G. Friday's lines outside stores across the country were reportedly 100- to 200-people deep in some places, falling short of the lines that sometimes stretched for blocks in 2007 and 2008.
Also different this year was the activation process for new phones. Both Apple and AT&T's servers appeared to hold up much better this year, with many buyers Friday morning reporting quick, easy transactions. After just an hour, folks lining up outside Apple and AT&T stores in New York City, San Francisco, and Emeryville, Calif. were filing into the stores in an orderly manner, with no brawls breaking out over line-jumping or the headache-inducing activation problems of last year to be found.
The relatively lower turnout in the early morning wasn't really unexpected. Both Apple and AT&T offered a few more options for purchasing the 3G S this year that appeared to reduce the chaos--offering preordering and the ability to reserve iPhones for in-store pickup. Some customers who may have wanted a new phone are not yet eligible for an upgrade from AT&T unless they want to pay a hefty "early upgrade" fee, and for others, the 3G S isn't that much of an improvement over the 3G model released last year.
The attitude at New York's Apple stores was sleepy: Days of bad weather may have deterred potential customers. In San Francisco, just two people camped overnight on the sidewalk outside the downtown Apple Store. Most people, it seems, opted to sleep in their own beds Thursday night and began queuing up this morning. A middle-aged San Francisco woman buying her first iPhone exemplified the general attitude. She tried to pick up the phone she reserved Thursday night, but an Apple employee told her it wouldn't be available until Friday but that she could wait outside overnight to pick up her phone in the morning. Her reaction: "I said, 'You're kidding me, right?'"
Some things didn't change though. Despite the more tepid energy level overall, the first customer walked out of the Fifth Avenue store with an iPhone 3G S, waved it above his head and cheered, "First one, baby!"
In San Francisco, the first man in line, Adam Jackson, entered the store at 7 a.m. on the dot with his arms raised triumphantly amid claps and cheers from Apple employees. He emerged just 10 minutes later, new black 32GB iPhone in hand.
It was a far cry from last year's activation snafu. Dale Larson, who was first in the San Francisco line last year, expressed relief at his experience Friday. "This is sooo much better than last year," he said. He reserved his iPhone ahead of time and with help from an Apple employee had his phone activated in two minutes. Last year when the activation process bogged down he was stuck in the store for more than two hours. Apple ended up giving him a phone for free for his troubles. This year, he seemed happy to pay and get out in one-sixtieth the time it took last year.
Still, not everybody was pleased. Despite AT&T's attempts to clarify its policy Wednesday, there still appeared to be confusion with the carrier's early upgrade policy for iPhone customers. San Francisco-based digital marketing manager Jay Bain, who purchased his third iPhone in three years Friday morning, expected to pay $299 for a 32GB iPhone 3G S. Instead, he ended up laying down $499 for it. "I guess I didn't read the fine print," he said afterward.
But Jeff Johnson, a local software engineer, also bought his third iPhone in as many years, but said he paid just $299 Friday.
As of this writing, the supply of the iPhone 3G S seemed to be holding up, but we'll check back today and over the weekend to see if that still holds true as more people filter into the stores.
The absence of frenzy this year raises the question of whether the line waiting phenomenon has reached its conclusion. By next year, when a fourth-generation iPhone will surely be released, it's unclear if the cachet of being the first to have the latest upgrade will still be as appealing to more than just the hard-core Apple fans.
CNET's Caroline McCarthy contributed to this story.
Corrected at 12:50 p.m.: An erroneous calculation regarding the time it took Larson to activate his phone this year was fixed.
Update 2:30 p.m.: There have been some reports of longer waits to activate the iPhone.
Update 4:15 p.m.: Some AT&T stores say they've run out of iPhones, but will get more shipments in the coming days. Apple Stores appear better stocked--a similar pattern to what we witnessed last year.