'Golden gate': Why was the iPhone 5s launch day plagued by a critical lack of gold?

Gold iPhone 5s supplies critically low: What happened to cause 'golden gate'?

Apple launched the iPhone 5c and iPhone 5s today and while the pop-art inspired iPhone 5c - thanks to it being an easier-to-manufacture branch of last year's iPhone 5 with an even easier-to-manufacture polycarbonate shell - was, by all accounts, in plentiful supply despite pre-orders starting a week ago, the higher end iPhone 5s was not. Especially the gold version. My Apple Store had 7 and no 16GB models. Other stores we've heard about had 2 to 10. We haven't heard of non-Apple retailers having many, if any gold stock either. By any measure, they were incredibly, ludicrously constrained. And the reaction by die-hard, line-up-overnighter customers has been loud.

Beyond the allusion to San Francisco, it's interesting to me personally to see gold, which when iMore reported it was resoundingly called chintzy and tacky, suddenly becoming so popular. There were some, it seemed, whose opinion of it changed as reports of its scarcity spread. In other words, they didn't want it, they just had to have it. People are funny that way.

Second, it's just as interesting to see people who wanted it all along try to assign reason to their disappointment. The three most common accusations are a) Apple deliberately withheld stock to artificially create scarcity and drive demand (i.e. they put their business ahead of their customers), b) Apple completely misjudged the demand for the gold model and didn't make enough (i.e. they were logistically incompetent), c) some manufacturing problem led to a shortage of gold iPhone 5s (i.e, they were were manufacturing-ly incompetent), or d) something that hasn't been considered yet (container fell off a boat or got misrouted, batch got ruined, etc.).

The last one, manufacturing problems, happened with the white iPhone 4. It failed to launch on schedule and took Apple 8 months to get right and ship. That's a precedent, but it's also something they should have learned from. Simple gold anodization is one of the easiest processes. It's a chemical reaction. It's unknown however what exactly Apple is doing, and it may well be more than that. But Apple did manage to ship the gold iPhone 5s, only in very limited quantities. Unless yield rates were tragically low, manufacturing process doesn't seem likely.

Misjudging demand by this degree also seems unlikely. Apple probably knows how popular aftermarket gold color changes have been, and how popular gold iPhone cases have been, and even if they wanted to hedge against gold, hedging this much against gold is hard to understand.

Artificially limiting supply to increase demand is a classic marketing strategy, but a risky one. You make an object desirable in hopes of attracting more attention while not risking alienating the larger pool of potential customers. It's smart business, but not always smart customer relationship management. It's also hard to prove. (Nintendo was accused of artificially limited the supply of Wii consoles for months if not years.) And it's not like the iPhone 5s was ever in danger of not being in demand, gold or otherwise.

Apple says they're working hard to increase the supply of the gold iPhone 5s, meanwhile stores are sold out and online orders are pushed back to October already.

Unless Tim Cook addresses it on the next earnings call, whether or not, one or a combination of factors or not, caused the scarcity we may never know. Likewise, whether this ultimately results in even more iPhone sales for Apple, will also likely never know. Humans aren't only funny and covetous, we're forgetful.

I managed to get a gold iPhone 5s shipped to me, so I should have it soon, and am not personally affected by this (other than being chronically sleep deprived!). However, if you waited in line overnight for a gold iPhone 5s, did you get one? Either way, how do you feel about the experience?

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Rene Ritchie

EiC of iMore, EP of Mobile Nations, Apple analyst, co-host of Debug, Iterate, Vector, Review, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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