Apple has such notorious levels of secrecy that rumour has it Dan Brown’s new novel includes a chapter where symbologist Robert Langdon breaks into Jonathan Ive’s design studio in Cupertino to decipher secret new Mac keyboard designs. (BTW, remember the cryptex in the Da Vinci Code? This cylindrical container featured five alphabetical dials that had to be arranged in the correct sequence to spell out a five-letter code word in order to open and access the parchment message inside. Seeing as how the whole world has read the book I hope I don’t ruin things by reminding you that the code word was ‘Apple’.)

Despite the carefully engineered mystery shrouding its new product launches, Apple thrives on what old-school strippers refer to as “the reveal”. An army of breathless bloggers type up every word of the Apple press event where CEO Steve Jobs (or recently a more portly, boring version) starts by reading out splendid statistics to calm down the over-excited hacks as they await the rumoured ‘new thing’.

At the end of all the hype and hints the curtain is pulled back to unveil the grand brand new product. The audience gasps and shouts “No Way!”. The bloggers risk RSI as they race to be first online with the news. And the world’s press hold the front pages for a spot of gratuitous Apple swooning.

Maybe it’s the absence of showman Steve’s legendary Reality Distortion Field, the global economic downturn, or fear of catching Swine Flu from the bloke in front of you in the queue, but the allure of Apple’s latest iPhone appears to be rather on the wane.

Quiet riot
The launch of Apple’s iPhone 3GS was a much quieter affair than that of the original (9 November 2007 in the UK) or the iPhone 3G (11 July 2008). Yes, there was plenty of chatter on Twitter and buzz on the web but the queues outside Apple Stores and other resellers barely stretched out of the door.

There were several reasons for this. Some were good news for eager iPhone customers. Others less so. Not many were great for Apple’s love of the grand promotional stunt, but the statistics suggest another sales success.

Reason number 1 for the lack of queues forming weeks before launch day (19 June) was the rather handy pre-order option from UK reseller Carphone Warehouse. All you had to do was phone up or click some links online, pass a credit check, select your preferred model, pay your money, and decide whether you wanted the new iPhone delivered to your house by courier or to a store for personal pick up.

Those sensible enough to go through this painless procedure didn’t have to queue with the dummies off the street or the thickos buying a different kind of mobile phone (unbelievable I know, but there are still other handsets out there).

In reality it wasn’t as smooth for many as it was meant to be. For example (let’s just say it was me) I had pre-ordered an iPhone 3GS for my wife, and was to pick it up “first thing” from my local Carphone Warehouse store. Strolling in with the air of a man who had just breezed past a non-existant queue my elation was deflated when told the pre-ordered, pre-paid, promised “first thing” iPhone was “still on the van”.

I had to go back later in the day, where I discovered that the iPhone was now off the van but without a SIM card. I had to cancel the pre-order, request a refund, and buy a new iPhone, going through all the credit checks, etc, again.

This was certainly a pain but probably more convenient than getting up at 3am to risk rain and opprobrious heckling from drunk nightclub revellers for a spot of tedious queuing outside the Apple Store.

Reason number 2 was the lack of differentiation between the iPhone 3G and the 3GS. The new phone is much faster but only due to internal components. It still relies on the 3G network for download speeds. The benefits of a 600MHz processor as opposed to a 412MHz chip aren’t as sexy as “new 3G speeds”. As for the new PowerVR SGX graphics chip that supports OpenGL ES 2.0… well, forget it O2 salesperson.

The 3GS also looks identical to the 3G iPhone, which itself was larger and uglier than the lovely original (writes the man with a 2007 version rather than anything with the title 3G in its name). And even backward types like me could upgrade our iPhone software to version 3.0 – the same as on the shiny new 3GS.

What the 3GS does have that set enough hearts a-racing is a much better camera with video functionality. Plus there’s voice recording, and, er, a digital compass.

Reason number 3 for the empty pavements outside iPhone 3GS stores was, of course, price. Because O2 subsidised the iPhone 3G handset over the course of the customer’s contract the small print ruled out instant upgrades to the new iPhone.

You had to pay off the remainder of your contract before starting a new one. Seeing as pioneers like me who bought the original iPhone on the first day were less than a month out of contract by 3GS launch you can imagine the potential upgrade cost for later purchasers and especially 3G owners.

While the shops were quiet (bar my exaggerated moans about the pre-order fiasco) it appears as though Apple has pulled off another smartphone coup – beating rival launches such as the Palm Pre and Nokia N97, while almost selling out of 3GS iPhones.

Less than 10 days after launch Apple’s US retail stores reported shortages of some models of the new iPhone 3GS, according to the company’s online inventory tracking tool. Six per cent of Apple Stores were completely out of the iPhone 3GS. Nearly half didn’t have any stock of the 16GB model.

Whether all future Apple launches will be this quiet remains to be seen. An Apple with Steve Jobs back in control would surely demand more launch-day buzz. While the iPhone appears to have lost some of its immediate desirability I suspect that an Apple tablet, Mac netbook or games console would bring back the thermos flasks and tired but ecstatic faces to a retail store near you.