What's Apple's iPad 2 game?

Earlier this week, I rather gloomily predicted that with the iPad 2 enjoying robust sales in the US, coupled with the fact that we still didn't have anything resembling launch prices to speak of, that we might be staring down the barrel of a delay to the on-sale date.

It's true — sort of — that I was wrong about that. Why, according to the press release that Apple put out very late on Tuesday night, iPad 2 would be available to order online Friday at 1am, and then to buy at retail stores from 5pm. Which is a little odd and quirky, but then this is Apple we're talking about.

I could say that I waited up until 1am to order an iPad 2, but that would be something called a "lie". I actually slept in until the hearty hour of 4am instead. At 4am, I checked my Twitter feed, only to read a bunch of rather angry tweets. Checking the Apple Store, I quickly saw why. iPad 2 was indeed available to pre-order, but by pre-order, Apple actually meant "When we ship it to you in 2-3 weeks".

A quick ethical disclaimer: I had to get up at 4am anyway as a Canon conference I'm attending had a event scheduled to start at 5am. I didn't get up at 4am for the purpose of iPad 2 price checking. Just so you know.

The thought did strike me that it was 4am, and perhaps sales had been very brisk indeed, but checking with MacTheMag's esteemed hairy editor, this wasn't the case. By his clock (and rapidly page-refreshing hand), iPad 2 "sales" had started at 12:45am. So somebody jumped the gun a little — but, moreover, there was always a 2-3 week wait to deal with. He did look especially thrilled later in the day when he got the shipping notice for his iPad 2 Smart Cover, which (fingers crossed) should arrive several weeks before the actual hardware. I expect he'll be able to make it into a little hat or something in the meantime.

Fashionable headwear aside, why would Apple do that kind of scheduling? Why would you schedule online sales for 1am Australian time, and then retail sales for 5pm later that same day?

Does it benefit consumers? No, not really. Anyone who stayed up late will undoubtedly be disappointed that they weren't able to order something for delivery today. It was reasonable for consumers to assume that the early ordering time was to ensure that couriers might be able to start shipping things today; not so much that Apple might have an extra three weeks of interest on their money and they be left waiting. If Apple knew it wouldn't have stock to even begin to satisfy customer demand, then why not start pre-ordering either days before, or even at the same 5pm "on sale" time?

Moving on to the actual retail sales launch, which is yet to happen as I write this, the 5pm retail sales time isn't that convenient for most consumers either. Especially as it appears that Apple isn't planning to open stores late to cover those folks already out in queues. Perhaps that's to cover for the actual stock numbers on hand, which may sell out quickly.

So what's it all for?

In a word, hype. If it's clear to everybody waking up on the Friday morning that the only way to get the iPad 2 is to go and start queuing right now, then the queues will be bigger. Bigger queues equals more hype, equals larger eventual iPad 2 sales. It also means that any competing tablet products get fewer column inches or TV spots.

It also strikes my (admittedly cynical) little mind that it's a great way to manage iPad 2 shortages. When the original iPad launched, we were promised one date only to see it whisked away due to larger than anticipated US sales. This time around, I suspect Apple were keen not to repeat that experience, although the fact that we had to wait until near the last minute just for pricing details suggests that not everything was nailed down all that early in the piece.

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