TOKYO --- Apple today launched its third-generation iPad in Japan. Not long after a series of incidents marring the iPhone 4S' launch in China, its neighbour received a smooth welcome from queuing customers.
Lines had been forming overnight with eager campers outside of Tokyo' Shibuya and Ginza stores. According to Apple store staff, some customers had even been waiting for two nights just to get in first.
Was it worth the wait?
Well, they needn't have worried. Although tumultuous launches of the iPhone 4S in Hong Kong and mainland China might have set people on edge over potentially uncontrollable crowds and scalpers, such concerns were virtually invisible in Tokyo.
A small handful of security guards waited outside, but they were mostly enjoying the sunshine rather than worrying about crowd control.
Within an hour of opening the doors, the queues were already dissipated, with more than 400 customers already served by 9.30 am.
Previous launch disasters have warned Apple to make sure they are well equipped for dealing with heavy numbers. Ginza, the first international Apple retail store, had four floors and a streamlined system in place to make sure that customers were served and out of the door in time for work.
To take the pressure off staff, the queuing customers had been issued cards specifying exactly which product, model, and contract they required.
It was a simple way to quickly cart customers to the right place, but also to keep an eye on stock and avoid any embarrassing problems. I'm not sure if this practice will happen in other locations such as the U.S., and more importantly China, but the Japanese are nothing if not patient and orderly.
Assume crash positions?
Around 250 staff and salespeople were on the floor this morning; practically one member of staff for every customer. It showed. When the crowds died down the staff far outnumbered customers, and many were just waiting for the next lunch rush.
One member of staff told me that the launch --- so far --- was "not as crazy" as when the iPhone 4S went on sale in October. Considering they launched this new product midweek, staff were all gearing up for another sudden bolt at the end of the working day.
I must admit I was surprised at first by how quiet it seemed on the streets. But as lunch started to roll in, so did the crowds, and by the time I left the store standing space was getting sparse.
See iPad, buy iPad, set up iPad.
On top of the standard sales floors and display products, the Ginza store also had a theatre floor, with demonstrations helping each customer in how set up their brand new iPad. I saw several eager consumers in their seats setting up their new gadget when it was still in the box.
To avoid a cluster, all the contracts were sent straight to the top floor, with around 30 units working at any given time. Sales staff said that the average waiting time to set up a contract this morning was around half an hour, but that customers who had opted for the Wi-Fi model had basically been straight in and out.
Apple retail staff declined to say which was the more popular model. The top floor, they said, is "the family room". Under today's extraordinary circumstances it was dominated by contract customers, with only a small round table of games set up to entertain any poor children dragged along to the launch.
Interestingly, almost every member of staff working today was bilingual, and I was surprised by just how many non-Japanese faces I saw in the crowd. The iPhone has always been a big seller for the foreign community here in Japan, and seemingly the iPad is no different.
Equally surprising was the number of English language apps on the display models. Apple's stores, and Apple's rules, but the culture difference didn't seem to faze potential customers much.
I took the chance to play around with the new model, and at a glance I would say the majors changes I noticed were mostly physical. It felt like a much larger tablet then its predecessor, and far heavier too. Accommodating the new battery for the next-generation 4G mobile broadband technology certainly added some heft, but what surprised me most was the heat emanating from the device.
In the ten minutes or so that I had to play around with it, I noticed that it became very warm, very quickly, making me wonder how comfortable it might be for long term use.
That being said, the tablet was a display piece that had already been running since the crack of dawn, so I'm giving it the benefit of the doubt before I suggest this is a major issue.
More to come later in the day. As Japan wakes, the United States sleeps.
Image credits: ZDNet.
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