Last updated: April 4, 2010 4:00 am

Apple aficionados flock to iPad launch

Hundreds of technology aficionados flocked to Apple’s US retail stores this weekend to pick up the computer maker’s most important new product since the iPhone’s introduction in 2007.

Most of them had ordered the iPad tablet-style machine weeks ago, sight unseen, as word spread of tight supply. That made for a self-selecting group of Apple faithful, many of them longtime iPhone, iPod or Mac users.

Others came to the stores before they bought and found an ample amount in stock, suggesting that Apple had either held plenty back for walk-in traffic or overestimated demand.

Apple had told manufacturers it wanted to produce a million iPads per month and “that’s clearly in excess of demand,” said Ashok Kumar, an industry analyst at Rodman & Renshaw. “Eventually it will find a niche and a success, but it’s not going to be of the scale and scope of the iPhone.”

Apple had no immediate comment on sales volume. Analysts – who had been projecting 100,000 to 400,000 units to be shipped in the initial burst – said the iPad would take longer than past Apple hits to catch on because it is not intended to replace ordinary computers or phones.

One key to the product’s eventual fate is the enthusiasm of the early adopters. There was some on display at an Apple store in San Francisco, where more than 100 people were still in line two hours after the store opened.

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The first crop of buyers raved about being able to watch streaming movies with their Netflix subscriptions, the crisp display of photos and the ability to surf the large-screen web with nothing but their fingers.

“I think it’s the beginning of the end for the standard laptop,” said Brett Kacmarczyk, a 48-year old police officer, who experimented with an iPad at a San Francisco Best Buy electronics store and then bought one. “It’s amazing.”

Some who came to look said they enjoyed the experience but did not see it as worth a minimum of $499, especially without a camera.

Ted Smith, who already owns an iPhone, said he was not planning to buy an iPad on day one. “But I’m sure I’ll get one in a few months,” he said. “I love Apple products and I think it fills the niche between the personal computer and the iPhone.”

A critical factor for the iPad’s prospects is the online marketplace for applications, known as apps.

Many of the most popular free apps on the debut weekend came from media companies, according to Apple’s running tallies. They included the ABC network’s episode player and the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today enhanced newspaper apps.

The most frequently downloaded paid apps included Apple’s own Keynote presentation software and Electronic Arts’ iPad version of Scrabble, which are both priced at $10, as well a Major League Baseball app and the Flight Control game from Firemint, both priced at $5.

The top-grossing apps included versions of several books for children, including The Cat in the Hat.

Early reviews of the device were favourable, with some strongly worded exceptions.

At Boing Boing, an influential blog on technology and other topics, editor Xeni Jardin opined that the “iPad hits a completely new pleasure spot”. More than 500 people posted a link to her story on Twitter.

But another editor of the same site urged readers not to buy one. Cory Doctorow complained that Apple wielded too much control over what people could run on their machines – and more than 3,000 people Tweeted that.

Other commentators came down in the middle, praising the feel of the device when used for consuming Web content while saying it fell short of what a laptop computer could do.

“The iPad is powerful, elegant, and largely unlike any computer you’ve ever used,” wrote the technology news site Engadget. “This stuff is legitimately important. It’s not magical, but it’s a little bit revolutionary.”

Some media companies are offering free access to their new wares temporarily, with the help of big advertising sponsorships. Others are giving away the basics but trying to get business customers to pay more for extras — the so-called “freemium” model that has been hugely successful for some games and other apps on the iPhone and iPod touch.

Thomson Reuters is pitching three free apps from the iPad’s launch: News Pro exploits horizontal and vertical scrolling to display more than 200 stories and videos on a single page as well as lively market graphics; Reuters Galleries is intended for desktop slide shows of its photographs; and Marketboard is targeted at the executives and investment professionals to whom its terminals cater.

Marketboard, which features more detailed market and company data, will charge as much as $49.99 for in-app purchases of documents such as transcripts of company earnings calls, which can be downloaded to a “briefcase” section of the app.

“It’s an addictive screen. Once you start scrolling, you want to see more,” said Alina Barbuceanu, Thomson Reuters product manager.

So far, there seems little agreement about what professionals will pay for such tools. Bloomberg’s app, like its website, will be free; the Financial Times will require the same subscription as FT.com, about $15 a month, while the Wall Street Journal is charging $4 per week, a premium to its price for a bundled print-and-online subscription.

Entertainment apps combine video with more interactive data, taking advantage of the large display.

The National Basketball Association, meanwhile, developed an app with Time Warner’s Turner Broadcasting division that uses real-time data feeds to provide live scores, team and player details and reams of constantly updated statistics.

NBA Digital already sells more than 100 iPhone apps, priced from $4 for fans of a single team to $40 for a league-wide season pass, but Brian Perez, general manager of NBA Digital, said the iPad would do more, changing mobile users’ behaviour.

“It’s much less a device of convenience than a device of engagement,” he said. “Unlike a mobile phone, where convenience is a major factor, we think this is going to be used more as a companion in the home.”

The free-for-now app has icons moving on and off the court as players are substituted and graphics show where individual players are making and missing their shots.

Additional reporting by Jonathan Birchall in New York

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