So Long, Apple Lines? Banishing iSquatters Good for All

Those lines that start forming in front of your local Apple Store a few days before a new iPhone or iPad goes on sale could become a thing of the past -- at least if Apple's retail chief has anything to say about it. With this month's release of the Apple Watch, the company is encouraging customers to do their shopping online rather than queue up at an Apple Store. And there's every reason to believe that this approach will also be used for future Apple product launches.

As someone who's covered Apple for the last 15 years and spent more than a few product launches interviewing people who camped out overnight to be among the first to get their hands on a new device, I have only this to say about the long lines that accompany Apple product launches: Good riddance. Long lines on Apple launch days have long since outlived their usefulness while only contributing to a lousy experience for customers.

News of the possible -- and welcome -- demise of the Apple Store line comes courtesy of Business Insider, which got a hold of a memo from Angela Ahrendts, Apple's senior vice president of retail and online sales. The memo declares that the "days of waiting in line and crossing fingers for a product are over for our customers" and instructs retail employees to tell people that it's much better to buy the Apple Watch and new MacBook online. "Tell your customers we have more availability online, and show them how easy it is to order," Ahrendts says in the memo. "You'll make their day."

Indeed, we can see Arhendts's instructions to retail employees reflected in what we know about trying and buying an Apple Watch. Apple will begin to accept orders online starting on Friday, April 10 at 12:01 a.m. PT, even though the watch itself won't ship until April 24. You can go into an Apple Store to try on the watch before you buy, but Apple is encouraging customers to schedule appointments. You can schedule an in-store pickup for your new Apple Watch, but you'll take care of the actual purchasing online.

That approach to Apple Watch sales along with Arhendts's memo is a clear signal that Apple would appreciate it if launch day crowds milling around its stores would kindly disperse. It's been a common assumption that the lines snaking around the block outside Apple Stores brought nothing but positives to Apple. The lines brought out camera crews and reporters who reinforced the notion that Apple alone among tech brands could generate this kind of fervor and that whatever product going on sale (be it an iPhone or iPad) was very much in demand.

That was probably true once, but the negatives of having a large crowd descend upon your store -- namely, that they rapidly snap up inventory from the limited shelf space available in brick-and-mortar outlets, leaving empty-handed and frustrated customers -- may no longer be worth the photo opportunity of long lines.

Apple product releases, like the 2005 launch of Mac OS X Tiger, used to bring out the crowds... and the media.

Apple product releases, like the 2005 launch of Mac OS X Tiger, used to bring out the crowds... and the media.

That's been my perception over the years, as I've noted a marked shift in just who is queuing up for Apple devices at these launch events. In 2007, when the first iPhone came, it was fun to see like-minded enthusiasts who couldn't wait to get their hands on something new. Seven iterations of iPhone later, it's a different mix of people. The tech enthusiasts who aren't placing orders online have long since been crowded out by publicity seekers and paid line sitters.

The last couple of times I've covered an Apple product launch, the people I've talked to at the front of the line have been hard-pressed to even recite the feature set of the phones or tablets they're camping out overnight to buy. Instead, they were sitting there on someone else's behalf. I can only hope they were well-compensated for their line-sitting efforts; incidents at other Apple Stores suggest that's unlikely.

It's a not terribly well-kept secret that a lot of the people you see queued up outside an Apple Store to buy an iPhone or iPad on the first day they're available are going to turn around and resell that device as soon as they leave the store -- most likely to someone in a country where that iPad or iPhone hasn't arrived yet. Apple, understandably, isn't too keen on this gray market for its products, and if doing away with launch day lines is how it puts the kibosh on that, it's an instance where the company's interests dovetails nicely with those of consumers who just want to buy a new phone.

Recent launches, like last fall's iPhone 6 release, still causes people to queue up, but not always for a phone they're buying for themselves.

Recent launches, like last fall's iPhone 6 release, still causes people to queue up, but not always for a phone they're buying for themselves.

Apple has been moving in this direction for some time, long before Angela Ahrendts's memo came to light. For years, the company has accepted pre-orders a week or so before its phones and tablets arrived in stores, meaning you didn't have to break out the camping gear if you wanted to upgrade your iPad. Heck, you didn't even have to put on pants. Just place your order, wait a few days, and let the parcel-delivery service of your choice do all the heavy lifting. All Apple seems to be doing now is giving customers a firm-if-still-friendly push toward what it was already offering.

That said, the promise of a line-free future is more vision than reality at this point. Ahrendts seems to acknowledge as much in her memo, writing "This is a significant change in mindset." Doing away with lines completely would mean radical changes -- only taking orders online initially until there was enough inventory on hand to fully stock Apple's retail stores, just as an example -- and a likely redefinition for what Apple Stores are there to provide. It's something to keep an eye on the next time Apple has a new product to roll out.

But if this is, in fact, the beginning of the end to all that: goodbye, long lines outside Apple Stores whenever something new comes out. I shall think of you fondly every time I am warm and indoors.

Follow Philip Michaels @PhilipMichaels. Follow Tom's Guide at @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.

Philip Michaels

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.