I Heart iPhone: The Modern Phenomenon of the Apple Queue

17/10/2013 15:08 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 23:58 GMT

A New Yorker celebrates buying his brand new iPhone 5S after two weeks of waiting.

It's an all too common sight. People sleeping on the streets, covered in moth bitten blankets, a look of desperation on their faces as the more fortunate walk past them, not giving them a second thought. But these people aren't homeless. It's their choice to sit in the rain, because they're waiting for something that weighs 112 grams and has a 4 inch screen: an iPhone.

Launched last month amongst much fanfare, the new iPhone 5s boasts new features such as a nifty fingerprint scanner, (slightly) improved battery life and the phone's best camera, including a very cool slow motion function. It's all good stuff, but is it enough to demand days of sleeping rough?

Apple faced criticism that the 'tweaks' didn't demand a whole new phone launch, but a look outside any flagship Apple store on the morning of September 20th 2013 told a whole different story, as thousands around the world queued for days, sometimes weeks, for the latest update.

It's no secret that Apple has become something of a cult amongst the tech obsessed, and there's nothing like an iPhone launch to bring the super fans out into the open. Like groupies waiting outside a venue to grab the front spot at a gig, queues for the new iPhone or iPad has now become a key part of the Apple mythos. Pre-orders were not available for the 5s, suggesting that this visual indicator of the power of Apple is something the company is encouraging. Apple store employees are now even expected to look after the hardcore fans, providing them with coffee and power (for their phones of course).

So iconic is the iPhone queue that Apple's greatest enemy, Samsung, used it as a basis for a 2011 advert that was so effective ("Is this what adultery feels like?" whispers a queue member as they check out the new Samsung) that they rolled out a near identical one in 2012, complete with the kicker of an excited iPhone fan exclaiming "This year we're finally getting everything that we didn't get last year!" The ads are snarky, but they make a stark point about the stubborn and unebbing devotion of Apple users.

The first British queue members turned up outside the Covent Garden Apple store five days before launch, but the keenest fans were outside New York's flagship store - a whole two weeks before the 5s was released, and amazingly before it was even announced, relying on the strength of internet rumours. Fans brought blankets, copious food supplies and the all important generator - so they can livetweet the experience from their macs, iPads and soon to be abandoned iPhones from the comfort of their camping chairs.

Maybe one of the most appealing aspects of this year's phone wasn't the updated software features, but the fact that it came in two new colours - silver and gold. Due to stocking issues, the new blingy iPhones were in short supply, making them even more exclusive and desirable.

Apple queues have become a more cynical affair in recent years, with teenagers offering their services as line-sitters for those too busy to spend days waiting for a phone, but rich enough to hire a lackey to do it for them. The front spot of the Regent Street store was bagged by a resourceful 17 year old who was selling his spot for a cool £1,000. The queues are also populated by members of the media and those who are there to do some marketing for their brand, as Apple queues are now heavily photographed. Even brands such as Greggs and Subway send free food to the intrepid queuers in the hope that they'll get snapped snacking on their brand.

This mini documentary about those queuing outside New York stores reveals a lot about the state of mind of Apple obsessives using their own words. When the man behind the camera asks "Why?" one fan who has been waiting for 14 hours responds with a flustered "I dunno". One of the most damning images is a woman wrapped inside a sealed plastic bin bag, unknowingly suffocating herself as she sleeps on the sidewalk. Queuing for a few hours may be harmless (and maybe even fun), but when the wait extends for days, dangers start to grow. Exposure to the elements, lack of hygiene, lack of sleep and abuse from drunks can lead to danger and ill health for the line. Several fights broke out at a queue in California for the 5s launch.

The cult of Apple is a very real phenomenon: data recovery specialists Enigma Recovery have known iPhone users to become 'hysterical' when their device breaks down; therapy programmes have been set up for toddlers obsessed with iPads; director Spike Jonze has made a film all about falling in love with Siri:

Despite recent rumours that Apple is losing its mojo, it recently took over Coca Cola to become the most valuable company in the world, and the posthumous cult of Steve jobs is in full swing, with two films about his life released this year and even realistic action figures made in his image now available in Japan. Apple has its critics, but the frenzy that surrounds the launch of each product suggests that as a brand it's still indestructible.