Over 400 Apple enthusiasts lined up Saturday morning -- some queueing since Friday night -- to be among the first customers at the opening of China's first Apple Store in Beijing.
For Beijing's Apple users, the opening was the end of a wait that began when Apple first launched dedicated retail stores in 2001. David Feng, head of the Beijing Macintosh Users Group, began camping out at 9 p.m. local time Friday night, putting him sixth in line. About 50 people waited overnight, with a few hundred more arriving before the opening, he said.
"Apple brings with it a young, creative spirit," said Zhang Youdai, a Beijing radio DJ and Apple user, who arrived not long before the store's opening.
Local Apple buyers face higher prices than their overseas counterparts. Some items, such as the iPod touch's 32G byte model, sell for 30 percent more than in the U.S. online store. Feng said Chinese customers were unfazed. "This is what we pay for Apple quality," he said.
Apple products have been available in China for over a decade via specialty retailers.
The store, Apple's 219th worldwide, is as much a planting of the company's flag as an entry into China's market, and likely an indication that an official iPhone launch won't be far beyond.
"They're already here, there are maybe 800,000 of these devices that have been smuggled in, so China Mobile at some point, they might as well protect this customer base and partner with Apple to legitimize this market," said Duncan Clark, CEO of BDA Media, a Beijing-based telecommunications consultancy and research firm.
Estimates on iPhone usage in China run from 400,000 to 1 million, according to research firm In-Stat. Obstacles to the iPhone's release here include China Mobile's opposition to Wi-Fi enabled handsets and incompatibility with China's domestic 3G (third-generation telephony) standard, TD-SCDMA (Time Division Synchronous Code Division Multiple Access). Apple has set no release date for the iPhone in China, but has said repeatedly that it would be available here.
But with the iPhone already widely if not officially available through other channels, it was the retail outlet's opening that drew visitors. "This is what we've been waiting for," said Feng, pointing at the storefront. "It's great to be here with members of the Mac community. It fills a huge gap," he added.
The Apple Store's opening has overshadowed other top brand names with stores in the same complex. The world's largest Adidas store opened in the Village at Sanlitun, about 3.5 miles (5.6 kilometers) northeast of Tiananmen Square, last week, but failed to capture the same attention. "I didn't even realize it was open," said Clark.
Some of Saturday's visitors were just there to enjoy the show. "It's the first one in China, so why not," said Eric Durban from St. Louis, Missouri, who said he was visiting Beijing for the Olympics, which begin August 8.
Apple Senior Vice President of Retail Ron Johnson said Thursday at a media preview of the store that a second Beijing location will open in 2009 in Qianmen, a newly-renovated shopping street south of Tiananmen Square. He also said the company will open Apple Stores in "Shanghai and beyond," but did not specify dates or locations for those stores.