SAN FRANCISC0/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Thousands of people thronged Apple stores on both U.S. coasts as the iPad 2 went on sale Friday, signaling strong appetite for a device that dominates the fledgling market it created.
Braving chilly rain and curious stares, the hordes of fans — many of whom had queued up overnight — formed pre-sale lines from New York to San Francisco hours before the device went on sale at 5 p.m.
The crowd erupted as a sea of blue-shirted Apple staff threw open the doors and gave high-fives to the first eager iPad shoppers in Manhattan.
The turnout will offer hints as to whether demand for Apple’s tablet remains strong nearly a year after the original proved a smash hit, single-handedly created the tablet market, and inspired a wave of imitators from Motorola to Research in Motion.
More than 800 queued outside the Apple store on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue ahead of the launch, hoping to get first dibs on the thinner, lighter and faster iPad that Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs unveiled last week to strong reviews.
“I wanted to be a part of it,” said Andrew Christian, 26, a pharmacy technician from the Bronx who was No. 11 in line after waiting all night in the rain. He wrapped his sneakers in plastic Apple bags.
Shares of Apple rose 1.5 percent to close at $351.99 on Nasdaq.
Wall Street anticipates a strong start to the iPad 2, on par with the original’s, though some analysts were more bullish. Ticonderoga Securities’ Brian White said Apple could potentially sell 1 million iPads over the weekend — roughly matching sales in their first month on the market in 2010.
“It looks to me like it’s going to be a very strong launch,” he said.
More than 200 people waited outside Apple’s flagship San Francisco store at 9 a.m. local time, more than doubling by lunchtime.
The lines were in themselves a spectacle. More than 100 onlookers gathered just to watch the antics of Apple fans in Manhattan.
“It’s curious to see how people can get so fanatic. Its interesting. I don’t know whether it’s good or not,” mused Giordano Cioni, 23, who is on vacation.
Apple is no doubt hoping for a repeat of April 2010, when thousands of people lined up to buy what was then a largely novel device with an uncertain market. But analysts say the 10-inch touchscreen iPad 2 has been improved incrementally, not reinvented wholesale. It is thinner, faster and adds a pair of cameras for video chat.
The benchmarks for the iPad 2 are clear. The first iPad sold 300,000 units on its first day, 500,000 in the first week, and crossed the 1 million unit mark in 28 days.
Given that the iPad 2 will be available in far more stores to start than the original model, Wall Street would be surprised if the device fails to outpace its predecessor in the early going.
In addition to being sold at more than 200 Apple outlets in the United States, the iPad 2 will be available starting Friday in the stores of AT&T and Verizon Wireless, as well as Best Buy, Target Corp and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
Unlike last year, Apple did not take orders ahead of the release, so anyone wanting first dibs on an iPad will have to journey to a store. That may help bulk up store lines, providing Apple the buzz it craves and is expert at generating.
That buzz may prove important as rivals gear up for their own full-blown assault on the same market.
Tablet sales are expected to surge to more than 50 million units this year, with Apple capturing more than 70 percent of the market. The iPad 2 hits store shelves in more than two dozen additional countries on March 25.
Apple is releasing the second version of the iPad before many of its rivals have even brought their first tablets to market. Apple sold 15 million iPads last year, generating $9.5 billion in sales, and had the tablet market largely to itself.
The iPad remains the most affordable tablet on the market, starting at $499.
JPMorgan analyst Mark Moskowitz warned this week of a potential bubble forming in the market as early as this year, as Apple’s rivals make more tablets than consumers will buy.
He said supply could outstrip demand by as much as 36 percent in 2011 — a whopping 17.2 million units.
Blackberry maker RIM and Hewlett-Packard Co are set to release tablets in coming months. Some analysts believe RIM and HP could provide Apple with some competition, because both devices offer unique software, and both have formidable sales channels.
And although Samsung Electronics and Motorola have launched tablets, neither appears to poised to give the iPad a run for its money.
“The technical and form factor improvements of the iPad 2 stand to make it tougher for the first generation of competitive offerings to play catch-up,” Moskowitz wrote in a research note on Wednesday.
Editing by Edwin Chan and Richard Chang