I got out of bed at 5 a.m., packed a bag, grabbed a coffee, and headed to my local mall in New Jersey. I arrived at 5:25 to find about 30 people already in line at the outer doors closest to the Apple Store. I set up my chair, huddled in the cold and enjoyed my coffee. The fellas at the front of the line had arrived at 3 a.m. In fact, they did a drive-by at 1 a.m. and since there was no one in line yet, they went to a local diner to kill time. That's dedication (or insanity).
By 6 a.m. several dozen more people were behind me. The attitude was convivial -- people discussed how crazy it is to get up early in the morning to buy a new phone, yet they did it anyway. At 6:30, the mall's exterior doors were opened and we were led to the Apple Store, where stanchions were set up to corral us all into an orderly line. The Apple Store employees were warm and friendly, and handed out water. At this point, about 100 people were in line. We could clearly see workers inside the store setting up new displays for the 5s and 5c. Most of the Apple Store employees had arrived around 5 a.m., according to people I spoke with.
[ There's a lot to like about Apple's new smartphones -- but there's also room for improvement. Read Apple iPhone 5s, 5c: Pros And Cons. ]
At 7 a.m., the Apple Store employees started going through the line handing out cards for certain models. It was a reservation system of sorts. The store had only three gold iPhone 5s variants in stock, and all three went to the first two people in line. About a dozen white models were available, and they were all accounted for by the time the employees got to me. For the record, I picked the slate 32-GB 5s for AT&T, but I probably would have gone for white had it been available.
At around 7:55, the Apple Store employees started whooping and hollering to build up excitement. There was a lot of clapping and cheering. They opened the doors at exactly 8 a.m. and let in the first dozen people in line. With 30 people in front of me, I had to wait about 30 minutes before I was able to enter the store. There was plenty of staff on hand, and using the card system really helped them manage which devices customers were grabbing.
Every person in line, as far as I could tell, was there to purchase an iPhone 5s, not the 5c. Many people wanted the gold model, and most of them left disappointed. According to my contacts on Twitter, most Apple Stores that had the gold model at all had fewer than 10 available. An Apple employee told me that my position in line guaranteed me a 5s, but the employee also implied that they might run out at some point.
Once I got into the store, I was assigned an employee, who took my card, grabbed the phone I wanted, and rang me up. A full-price 32-GB iPhone 5s costs $749. Toss in $99 for Apple Care, $39 for a leather case, and sales tax, and the total came to $949.09. Ouch. I purchased the device at full price chiefly so I wouldn't have to extend my contract with AT&T. Of course, I wasn't eligible for an upgrade anyway.
When I left the Apple Store at about 9 a.m, about 100 people were still in line waiting to get into the store. Looking at dozens of pictures across the Web, my experience appears to be fairly typical.
If you want a gold or white iPhone 5s, you've already missed your chance. It appears that the limited stock available today has already been spoken for. You can order the gold and white models from Apple's Web store, but they won't ship for four weeks. It looks like Apple didn't manage its launch-day supply very well, at least as far as the gold and white models are concerned.
Apple Stores have longer lines than carrier stores. Customers at AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon stores around the country are reporting much shorter lines, often fewer than a dozen people. It's a crap shoot, though, about what type of stock the carriers will have. Some reports have suggested that the carriers would have very few devices on hand during the first week of sales.
Apple Store employees told me that their supply of the iPhone 5c was quite good and that they had plenty of each color available. If you're in the market for a 5c, you can probably head to the Apple Store at any time and leave satisfied.
If you plan to purchase a new iPhone 5s or 5c today or later this weekend, good luck!