When Anthony Agius came through Australian customs in Sydney Airport this morning, he knew he would be one of those people that might hold up the queue.
He fit the bill entirely. After a whirlwind trip to the United States, he had just gotten off a red-eye flight from New York with his suitcase packed full of suspicious-looking parcels that contained merchandise you can’t buy in Australia. But he didn’t want any trouble. So he decided to tell the customs officers honestly what to expect.
“I told them straight up — look, I have 17 iPads in my suitcase, worth US$499 each,” he says.
Agius says the reaction wasn’t what he was expecting. He had planned to pay some $1,500 in importation taxes to bring the iPads into the country. But Customs ended up only charging him $500. And the officers seemed more interested in checking out Apple’s latest gadget than slapping Agius with fees.
“They asked if they could try one out. I gave them mine that I had in my backpack, and they were playing with it for about 5-10 minutes, asking questions and so on,” he says.
But it was a reaction that Agius — the founder of the popular MacTalk site, which has over the years become a staunch community of Australian Apple fans — perhaps could have expected.
The international media as been blanketed with coverage over the past weekend of the April 3 launch of the iPad in the US. The device will not come to Australia until late April, but there is a strong degree of interest in Apple’s latest both domestically as well as around the globe.
Everywhere Agius and other Australians who went to the US last week to fetch iPads for themselves and their friends go at the moment, they attract interest because of the iPads they are toting. Friend Peter Wells — a Mac consultant who also runs the Fulltime Casual podcast — accompanied Agius to the US and says the pair’s individual iPads even attracted attention on the plane.
“The stewardesses on the plane [back] — even they were constantly hovering over my seat asking if they could play with certain things,” he says.
You can read a lot into this reaction of the everyman to the latest amazing thing to come out of Apple supremo Steve Job’s fertile laboratories. It goes a long way to explaining why so many Australians flew to the US last week to take advantage of the Easter long weekend to pick up an iPad.
More and more have come out of the woodwork over the past several days. Most are associated with the Apple community — such as Agius and Wells, APC Magazine online editor Dan Warne as well as Firemint PR spokesperson Alexandra Peters and Graham Clarke from Glasshouse Apps, whose companies both make iPhone apps.
But there were also others not as closely connected such as — Damian Damjanovski (pictured), a digital strategist at local marketing agency BMF, who bought two iPads and is still in the US playing with them on holiday.
Damjanovski’s iPad journey started when he realised the iPad was slated to launch roughly during a 10-day holiday he was planning in New York. So he made sure the two events coincided.
Typically Apple stores on the launch day of new products are packed, with a massive queue of would-be consumers stretching around the block. So Damjanovski got there early on April 3 last week.
“I got a head start on sleep the night before — I went to bed at 6pm,” he says in an interview conducted by Skype from a New York open Wi-Fi hotspot this morning. At 2AM, he got up, got into a taxi, and headed down to Apple’s flagship 5th Avenue store, which is normally open 24 hours, 7 days a week, but had been closed from midnight to be completely re-decorated for the iPad launch.
After loading up with cream cheese bagel and coffee supplies, the digital strategist got to the iPad queue about 3:30AM. There were already some people there, although it would be nothing compared to later in the morning. The queue at that stage was mostly composed of excited men from New York — Damjanovski said there was one girl — but as the night wore on it became much more diverse.
For example, Abigail Thomas, the head of strategic development at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Innovation department rocked up. “Nice meeting fellow Aussie in the q :),” she tweeted to Damjanovski shortly after on her way to the airport.
Agius and Wells were also on the Fifth Avenue line, having scouted out the venue the night before. “There were quite a few Aussie in the line, which is kinda surprising,” said Damjanovski.
However quite a few countries were represented in the queue — Australia is not the only nation which will have to wait until later in the year to receive the iPad.
Damjanovski particularly remembers a South African who had flown in for the event with his child, as well as others from Switzerland and Argentina, who he got into an extremely deep conversation with about global politics — “These deeper issues of South African apartheid versus Argentinian economics versus Australian colonialism.”
“In any other circumstance, it’s a conversation you’d have if you were drunk with people you’d known for a very long period of time,” he says, implying a certain shared spirit from those who had come together from all over the world to stand in one line to buy a certain Apple product.
Around the front of the queue was professional line sitter Greg Packer, who has a history of turning up extremely early to opening events — such as every iPhone launch — to get pride of place.
As the night turned to morning and it came to 9AM, when the Apple store was slated to open, the crowd grew and became surrounded by television cameras — Fox News, CNN, all the major US television networks. And bloggers from Gizmodo arrived to hand out gift bags for those lining up.
Damjanovski describes the actual opening as a retail experience entirely different from “walking into Myer on Boxing Day”.
The Apple retail staff was lined up inside the store applauding those about to buy their merchandise. “I know it is corny, but it is a bit of a magical experience,” he says. “The crowd was pretty hyped up at that point,” adds Wells. “Apple stores are really great at pushing that hype as well.”
“Americans can create an event in a way that I sometimes don’t think Australians can pull off,” he adds, noting that even for the launch of Apple’s flagship stores locally, some of the local staff looked kind of embarassed to be there, while in the US iPad launch opening they wanted you have to have the full “rockstar” experience.
Straight after picking up his iPads from an assistant named David — it was the first iPad he had sold, and the fourth credit card the store charged — Damjanovski dodged the TV cameras and headed straight to a Soho cafe where he could grab a coffee, a smoke and set up his new device.
It was then that he had his moment of panic after realising he couldn’t install any applications on the device — the cafe had Wi-Fi internet access, but Damjanovski didn’t have a US iTunes store account to register with Apple!
“You get this panic image — you have this time limit, you have to do this now — with some form of crazy immediacy,” he laughs, recalling the episode. “You get giddy with excitement!”
So the executive asked the cafe staff to mind his gear and frantically walked around the street he was in to try and find a store that would sell him an iTunes voucher, finally discovering a pharmacist that sold the cards.
“I opened a new American account with my new iTunes voucher, installed the Marvell Comics app and downloaded a comic,” he says. More apps followed and Damjanovski is likely still tinkering to find all of the iPad’s features. “It was such a wonderful feeling,” he sighs.
But while the digital strategist’s iPad journey had reached fulfilment, that of Agius and Wells had just begun.
Like Damjanovski, the pair had reserved two iPads each from Apple’s Fifth Avenue store and had picked them up — with Agius’ face appearing on TV screens all around the US –including in their hotel room — excitedly talking about his iPad purchase.
But they had also promised a dozen more friends back in Australia that they would also buy them an iPad — a promise fuelled by Agius’ leadership of the MacTalk forum.
“I think he just mentioned once on the site — or it might have even been on Twitter — that he was thinking of going overseas purely to get an iPad,” says Wells of Agius. “And straightaway people said if you’re going, get me one too. Within a day, suddenly there were 20 willing to pass on whatever the conversion rate for the iPad could be, if he could go pick them up.”
After recruiting Wells for the venture and along the way — attracting the attention of a TV documentary crew from the UK who followed the pair along for the day — Agius had booked a hotel room in the centre of New York — at a nice distance from each of the city’s four Apple stores.
After their Fifth Avenue purchases, it was back to this hotel room that the pair headed to in a rapid taxi ride to dump the goods — before heading out to each of the other three Apple stores and doing the same, blatantly ignoring Apple’s restriction on customers on buying two iPads each.
“We gave ourselves 4 separate Apple accounts in America,” says Well. “We were guaranteed to be able to pick up two iPads each from each store, and we were able to sneak a few extra in on the day.”
He admits Apple’s legal team might not be that happy about the bulk purchasing — but that its marketing team might be thrilled that people were willing to go to such lengths to buy the company’s hardware.
At the end of the day, for several of the Australians who flew to the US iPad launch, there were barriers to be pushed through to achieve their iPad dream.
Australian technology journalist Dan Warne, for example, had his National Australia Bank VISA card declined in the Apple Store in San Francisco — even though he had plenty of money in the account. The problem? Daylight savings changeover screwed with the bank’s systems. However he eventually got satisfaction and his iPad.
Likewise, Agius lost his wallet overseas and didn’t have any cards to pay for his iPad purchases. He ended up being saved by friends and acquaintances on Twitter and MacTalk — some of whom he had known online but never met — who lent him enough money to get through the trip intact.
Throughout the whole trip, Wells himself wasn’t sure if he was going to buy an iPad for his own use, or just go along for the ride and to be part of such a hyped event — which was a large part of the attraction of the trip for him. “I actually went there more for the trip to NY and the event and to be part of this crazy event,” he said.
“I wanted to be the non-fanboy,” he said, noting Agius had been clear he was going to buy an iPad for himself, and he wanted to make sure the MacTalk founder did see New York as a tourist as well and not just visit the Apple store and head back.
But eventually Wells did buy his own iPad — the day after they went on sale. “I thought, I’ll just go quickly back to an Apple store and check out the device without any of the hype and craziness,” he said, noting that one of the main selling points for him ended up being the Instapaper app which allows you save web pages for reading later.
Agius himself concedes he would personally love to see Apple release its products at the same time in Australia as the company does in the US, although he understands the reasons why that’s not possible. “Apple’s main income is in the US. If it was release elsewhere and there wasn’t enough stock in the US, that would be a negative,” he said.
However if last week’s experience for many Australians is any indication, it may actually be more fun the other way around. For early adopter enthusiasts like Agius, Wells, Damjanovski, Thomas, Peters and others, spending thousands on a trip to the US to pick up the latest hot Apple kit may just be too much fun to pass up.
“I thought it was a completely insane thing to do, but I’m so glad I did it,” says Wells.
Image credits: Apple, Damian Damjanovski