SAN FRANCISCO — In what has become an annual ritual of the digital age, thousands of exuberant loyalists lined up outside Apple stores around the world to be among the first to buy the company's new iPhones.
The atmosphere in the lines ranged from festive to tense as fights broke out at one store in Pasadena where a man hired homeless people to save spots in the waiting line. Many fans were also destined to be disappointed as several phones, particularly the highly coveted gold iPhone 5s, were in short supply and ran out within minutes of doors opening at 8 a.m.
"Everyone here wants the gold iPhone," said Jorge Pinell, 19, a City College of San Francisco student waiting in line at a San Francisco store. "But it ain't going to happen."
The silver and space gray iPhone 5s units also were reportedly in short supply. Once they became available for sale online after midnight, Apple's website said orders for the iPhone 5s might not ship until October.
Apple had hinted in the last week that it would have trouble meeting demand for the higher-end iPhone 5s, which features a fingerprint scanner, faster processor and upgraded camera. The company did not allow consumers to pre-order the phone online as it did with the cheaper iPhone 5c, which has a plastic case and comes in five colors.
Last year the company had similar problems meeting demand for the iPhone 5, with some customers waiting several weeks before their phones arrived.
Rumors of limited availability led Chris Lo, 24, a product developer, to get in a line Friday morning that stretched to 400 people outside Apple's San Francisco store in Union Square.
"Last year we just swooped in a few hours after the iPhone 5 went on sale and bought one," Lo said. "But we heard this year they were going to be in short supply."
The new gold iPhone 5s proved especially hard to find. Some stores apparently were given only one or two units, and word spread quickly that they were out of stock.
Thanh Nguyen, 27, a student at UCLA visiting his family in San Francisco, was one of the few people to get a gold iPhone 5s on Friday at the Union Square store.
That was because he was the first person to line up — at 2 p.m. Thursday. Last year, people lined up four days in advance of the iPhone 5 release.
Nguyen stood grinning, wearing an orange promotional shirt a company had given him, as the clock ticked closer to 8 a.m. Apple store employees started handing out cards to people in line. The cards indicated which phone they would buy.
When he came out of the store a short time later, Nguyen was surrounded by reporters as he tore open the box and held up the rare gold iPhone 5s.
"I'm so excited," he said. "I've been awake for 18 hours."
In Palo Alto, the 200 people waiting in line outside the Apple store on University Avenue were surprised when Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook arrived to greet customers and shake their hands. Cook apparently used the occasion to join Twitter (handle: @tim_cook) and send his first tweet Friday.
"Visited Retail Stores in Palo Alto today," Cook tweeted. "Seeing so many happy customers reminds us of why we do what we do."
At the Apple store nearby at Stanford Shopping Center, Apple executives Phil Schiller and Eddy Cue greeted customers.
Far to the south in the Los Angeles region, nearly everyone in line at Apple stores at the Grove and Third Street Promenade was hoping for the 5s.
"You should have bought the 5c! I don't know why you didn't," one Apple employee called out to a customer who left the Grove store with an iPhone 5s. At the Pasadena store, another Apple employee was encouraging people to buy the 5c while warning that the 5s was in short supply.
Peter Nichols, 50, was one of the few people at the Grove thinking of getting an iPhone 5c. The creative marketing director from the Fairfax district showed up at the Grove store at 4 a.m. and said the 5c would make for a good backup device.
"I like the idea of when I go to an amusement park or the beach, that I have something that's more durable," he said.
The prospect of profiting off their time waiting in line was appealing to many early iPhone buyers at the Grove, where 350 people were waiting outside when the Apple store opened.
"I'm gonna see if I can sell it online," 24-year-old Arturo Perez of Victorville said after buying a gold iPhone. "I had my heart set on keeping it, but someone said they were offering $1,500 on EBay."
After observing sales Friday, Wall Street analysts generally stuck to their estimates that Apple would sell about 6 million new iPhones this weekend. However, some analysts suggested that number could be closer to 5 million if it turned out Apple was unable to meet demand.
Barclays Capital research analysts said they were pleasantly surprised to see longer-than-expected lines at Apple's flagship New York store, though they noted that supplies of the iPhone 5s seemed "comically low."
Still, they believed there was a good chance Apple would sell 6 million phones this weekend, in part because the new iPhones were also made available in China on the first weekend of their release. Last year the iPhone 5 began selling in China several months after it began selling in the U.S.
"Even with limited supply, a more aggressive rollout plan — more geographies — and two new models, Apple could deliver a positive surprise on Monday when we believe 3 day weekend sales of the models could be announced," the analysts wrote. "Anything above 6 million units should be considered a positive surprise."
Perhaps worried about short supplies of iPhone 5s units, investors drove Apple's stock down $4.89, or 1%, to $467.41 on Friday.
Lacking the ability to make enough smartphones for everyone who wants one is the kind of problem that former rival BlackBerry would love to have.
On the same day Apple was trying to manage hordes of devoted fans, BlackBerry confirmed plans to fire 4,500 employees and take a write-down of $960 million for unsold inventory of the BlackBerry 10 phones the company was hoping would revive its fortunes.
A month ago, BlackBerry announced that it had formed a special committee to weigh strategic alternatives, including putting itself up for sale.
Twitter: @obrien, @byandreachang