Undeterred By the Pope or Bad Weather, iPhone 6S Launches to Long Lines Around the World

The first buyers in the world at the Apple store in Sydney: fans and robots alike. (PHOTO CREDIT: Seamus Byrne/CNET)
The first buyers in the world at the Apple store in Sydney: fans and robots alike. (PHOTO CREDIT: Seamus Byrne/CNET)

No, this isn’t the beginning of a joke: The pope, a robot and shorter lines shook up the usual iPhone launch day routine.

While some Apple fans showed up at stores around the world early, with queues forming days ahead of time in Sydney and San Francisco, many of the lines were shorter than in years past, possibly a sign that consumers just aren’t as excited by new smartphones as they used to be.

There were a few other wrinkles. The Apple faithful in Sydney, which included a robot sent to hold one fan’s place in line, got off to a wet start. New Yorkers had to contend with crowds both at the Apple store and for Pope Francis, who is in the city Friday as part of his US tour.

Buyers also lined up in Singapore, Paris, San Francisco and London as the annual retail spectacle followed the sun around the globe.

The launch of the 6S and 6S Plus, which add a pressure-sensitive screen and a crisper camera, comes amid questions of whether Cupertino, California-based Apple can continue to cast its spell over consumers. Unveiled two weeks ago, this year’s models feature only minor aesthetic changes to the phone’s chassis, which may dull the appeal for potential buyers who want an immediately recognizable device.

Consumers’ fatigue is a problem that the entire industry, including formidable players like Samsung and shooting stars like HTC, faces as the smartphone market matures. But there is no better poster child for this problem than the new iPhone.

That ho-hum feeling doesn’t mean Apple won’t sell millions of phones. Indeed, Apple said it was on track to exceed last year’s initial sales. But it does mean consumers may think a little longer before shelling out cash for an iPhone 6S when their old devices are “good enough.”

Having a successful iPhone launch is vital for Apple. The company’s iPad business continues to struggle, and its Apple Watch hasn’t yet become a major moneymaker. Apple now generates more than two-thirds of its revenue from its smartphone. The iPhone 6S has a high bar to clear for success. The iPhone 6, released at this time last year, has become Apple’s best-selling device ever.

Starting point: Sydney
Sales of the new iPhone 6S and 6S Plus began on a cold and very wet morning in Sydney, but Apple fans’ spirits were undampened as they huddled under tents and umbrellas.

Lindsay Handmer led off Sydney’s queue after arriving two days before the iPhone 6S announcement event. He said he isn’t really an Apple fan but wanted to promote his business while raising money for Australia’s homeless. He plans to auction the phones he buys later on Friday for charity.

Much of the attention in Sydney went to Lucy Kelly, who sent a robot to hold her place in line in another marketing stunt.

One chair-sitter was both eager and underwhelmed. “I sell my iPhone two weeks before the announcement each year to get the best price before I upgrade,” said 15-year-old Marcus Barsoum, who joined the queue at 4 a.m. Thursday. “I’m not too excited this year, to be honest. I’m going to get the rose gold because that’s the one that shows off that it is the new model.”

Barsoum will buy the 64GB iPhone 6S Plus.

Pricing for the new iPhones, unveiled September 9, starts at $199 with a two-year contract, and Apple also offers a new upgrade program that lets users update their iPhones every year by paying a monthly installment. The program isn’t available everywhere.

“If Apple had launched the iPhone upgrade program in Australia this year, I’d probably have bought it through that,” said Chris Norton, 24, of western Sydney. “I hope they do next year.”

Norton likes to come out for the queues and upgrades his phone every year. This year he’s buying the Apple Watch and latest MacBook alongside his 64GB iPhone 6S Plus in space gray.

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