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A first: More cheers than jeers at new Apple product debut in China

People lined up outside Beijing's Apple store for their chance to buy the latest iPad. NBC's Ed Flanagan reports.

BEIJING – This time, Apple and its devoted Chinese customers weren’t taking any chances. 

Wary of a repeat of the iPhone 4S debacle in China in January, when Apple’s release led to scuffles and even an egging of its flagship Beijing store by angry hordes after it was forced to cancel sales due to the crowds, Apple’s managers here put their heads together and came up with a new strategy for dealing with the crowds.

They came up with a reservation style of ordering already in use in other countries like the United States. However, this time they decided to institute the reservation system as the only way to purchase the latest iPad, which features a sharper display and better camera than previous versions, for its China debut.

Around 50 customers quietly lined up outside the store in Beijing Friday morning, staring intently inside the store as an almost equal number of jovial blue-uniformed employees clapped, sang and danced in the minutes before opening.

It was a far cry from the sheer bedlam unleashed earlier this year when the iPhone 4S went on sale. On that day, many in the crowd were scalpers who local media said hired scores of people to line up with them to purchase the precious phones to be sold in other Chinese cities for a higher rate. 

‘It shouldn’t take too long to learn how to use’
First in line to purchase the new iPad in Beijing on Friday was Ye Huafei, a 34-year-old software engineer who arrived at the store just two hours before opening. Forced to purchase this new iPad after his iPad2 had been poached by his mother to watch TV dramas, Ye elected to arrive early to pick up his new iPad so he could bring it to work and show it off to his colleagues. 

“It feels great to be first,” said Ye. “The scene here is fantastic.” 

Apple’s new product releases tend to attract a younger, status-conscious crowd in China. But mixed in the opening throng of customers was Mr. Wu, an older customer who coyly put his age at “under 65.”

Wu owns an iPhone 4S, but decided to upgrade to an iPad because he is getting older and his eyes have been getting tired looking at the small screen.

With new iPad in hand, the first thing Wu did was walk over to a nearby counter where an Apple employee was offering hour-long lessons to new customers on how to use their new tablets.

Fresh from class, Wu excitedly showed us what he had learned.

“It shouldn’t take too long to learn how to use, I have a strong base,” he said happily. “I have an iPhone 4S and I know how to use that very well.”

He will need to learn quickly. With his purchase, Wu became the first member of his extended family to use an iPad.

One thing he did not take long to discover was the free WiFi at the Apple store. With no Internet connection at home, Wu decided to save money by not purchasing a 3G-capable iPad and bought a wifi-capable tablet instead.

Pointing to the Apple store behind him, Wu said, “I’ll just come here. My home is very close…I spent the money, so I should enjoy the product and the service.”

The ‘it’ product
Like in much of the rest of the world, Apple’s phones and tablets have become the “it” product to own in China, which is now Apple’s second-largest market after the United States. But with just five official Apple stores in the country, even a robust gray market for Apple products cannot always keep up with demand, especially in the days immediately following a high-profile release.

Apple was forced to delay the mainland release of the latest iteration of the iPad due to a lawsuit brought by a company claiming to own the iPad trademark in China. So the company had time to experiment with the new reservation system in Hong Kong for its iPad debut last March and found it effective in dealing with scalpers and the crush that has followed previous product launches.

Since the Cupertino, Calif., company settled the trademark issue for a reported $60 million earlier this month, mainland Chinese customers were invited yesterday to start registering to purchase the iPad at a special website created by the tech giant. Upon filling out the online form, customers were given a designated time to pick up their new iPads.

On Thursday morning, NBC News attempted to log onto the website when it opened at 9 a.m. but the usual crowd of customers apparently crashed the site. The site was up and running again within the hour.

Questions about whether news of the change in policy had gotten out to the public and to poachers were answered early Friday morning when the plaza outside the Apple store in Beijing was mostly empty.

Reports from the other four Apple-owned stores also showed smooth sales.