SYDNEY (Reuters) - Apple Inc’s new iPad went on sale in Australia early on Friday, greeted by throngs of fans hungry to get hold of the U.S. consumer giant’s latest 4G-ready tablet computer.
While numbers were down compared with launches of earlier iPads, the still-solid turnout reflects demand for Apple products, even though analysts say the new version is a collection of incremental improvements rather than a major technological innovation.
Apple shares breached the $600 mark for the first time on Thursday on the Nasdaq, but gave up some of the gains in morning trading. The stock is up 47 percent for the year and nearly 10 percent for the month.
A single Apple share now costs more than the Wi-Fi-only iPad, which is priced at $499.
The initial rush for the first new third-generation iPads sold globally was not at one of Apple’s gleaming glass and polished wooden stores in Sydney, but across the road at Australian phone company Telstra. Telstra opened two stores just after midnight local time to begin selling the iPad, stealing an eight-hour march on Apple.
David Tarasenko, a 34-year-old construction manager, who was the first to pick up the iPad, said ever since Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook revealed the tablet’s third iteration, he couldn’t wait to get one.
“When Tim Cook announced it, it sounded like such a magical tool. I just got hyped into it, I guess,” he said.
The third-generation iPad from Apple — which sports a high-definition “retina” display and comes with a better camera — is capable of operating on high-speed 4G “LTE,” or Long-Term Evolution network. But this version is not compatible with Telstra’s 4G network in Australia.
Influential reviewers Walt Mossberg and David Pogue raved about the iPad’s new retina display screen. Mossberg said “using the new display is like getting a new eyeglasses prescription,” while Pogue said it made text look “freakishly sharp.”
But both Mossberg and Pogue noted the new iPad was not a total overhaul, but had enough technical improvements to maintain its lead in the market.
“Apple hasn’t totally revamped the iPad or added loads of new features,” Mossberg said, “but it has improved it significantly, at the same price.”
“The (lack of 4G access) is not a game-breaker. They’ve upgraded the 3G technology, which I’ve tried and it’s pretty snappy,” said Cameron Ing, a data storage administrator.
The new iPad is going on sale on Friday in 10 countries, including the United States, Canada, Singapore, France and Britain.
Among those lined up outside Sydney’s flagship Apple Store was Stephen Parkes, who was paid A$950 ($990) to wait in line for four days by the founder of an odd jobs website.
“I get a high waiting in the line and picking up one of the first products being retailed,” said Ryan Han, a student at the University of New South Wales, who had also queued for hours.
“I did that for iPad 1, 2 and will do it for 4 as well,” said Han, who was hoping to buy two iPads, for himself and a friend.
Such is the demand for new Apple products that middlemen often pay “mules” to buy the latest versions and transport them to markets scheduled for later releases.
A middle-aged Asian man outside the Apple store, flanked by two blue suitcases, said he was hoping to buy several new iPads, ideally more than 10. He declined to reveal his name, nationality or for whom he was buying the tablets.
Apple’s market capitalization now exceeds $500 billion and Wall Street thinks it can expand further should fan-demand persist.
Early signs hint at a strong 2012 for the device, which competes with Samsung Electronic’s Galaxy, among others. Despite soggy weather, small crowds had already gathered outside the downtown San Francisco Apple store ahead of the launch in the United States.
Apple began accepting orders for the device on March 7, but wait times for shipping it are now two to three weeks in the United States.
Wall Street expects a strong start for the latest iPad and some analysts even expect sales of the current model to overtake the iPad 2. Apple will continue to sell the iPad 2 but dropped its price by $100 to start at $399.
Apple may sell 65.6 million iPads, according to an estimate by Canaccord Genuity analysts who also raised their target price on Apple stock to $710 from $665.
So far, the company has sold 55 million iPads since it was launched in 2010.
Tablet sales are expected to increase to 326 million buy 2015 with Apple largely dominating the market, according to research firm Gartner.
($1 = 0.9574 Australian dollars)
Reporting by Lincoln Feast and Narayanan Somasundaram and in Sydney and Poornima Gupta in San Francisco; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Maureen Bavdek