Customers line up outside an Apple store in Sydney on March 16. Apple fans… (Mark Gunter/AFP/Getty…)
As with most Apple gadget launches, there are sure to be early morning crowds outside the company's big city stores Friday — but not everyone will be there to buy a new iPad.
At Apple stores in New York, San Francisco and Washington, dozens of protesters are expected to show up for the 8 a.m. launch of the company's third-generation tablet computer, stepping into the iPad's limelight to bring attention to concerns about the welfare of the Chinese factory workers who churn out the devices to satisfy a growing global demand.
The group, which has generated a digital petition on the website Change.org with 250,000 signatures, is asking Apple to improve conditions at its factories and said its protesters would crash Apple's party by parading critical messages in front of the TV crews bound to be camped out at the largest stores. Apple has said it is working to improve conditions in the factories that make its devices.
Photos: Apple unveils new iPad
The protests will add a new dimension to the now-familiar phenomenon that major Apple launches have become. Apple stores across the nation regularly attract long lines, with the most eager buyers sometimes arriving the night before to grab a prime spot, along with bragging rights that come with being the first iPad or iPhone owner in the area.
The new device, which starts at $499 for a 16-gigabyte Wi-Fi model, will have a high-definition screen and much more powerful computer graphics processor, allowing for sharp and detailed animation, gaming and movie playback.
For iPad buyers less interested in the pageantry at Apple stores, which includes high-fives and cheers from blue-shirted Apple employees, the company has expanded the number of retail chains where interested customers can look for the device.
When it arrives in stores tomorrow, the iPad will be available in limited quantities at most Best Buy stores, as well as Radio Shack, Target, Wal-Mart, Sam's Club and AT&T and Verizon locations.
In general, the number of units available at many of Apple's resellers will be smaller than at Apple's own stores, where stacks of new devices pile up in stockrooms.
A clerk at the Radio Shack in the Miracle Mile area of Los Angeles said that stores would not know how many units Apple would send until the shipment arrived Thursday night, but that the small store had been sent about 15 units of the iPhone 4S when it launched in October. Five people had already called the store to reserve iPads, she said.
Representatives at AT&T and Verizon Wireless stores in Los Angeles said they did not yet know how many units they'd have in stock, but would not be surprised to see modest lines outside their stores as well.
Analysts have said they expected Apple to sell more than 1 million iPads by the end of the product's first full day in stores. The first iPad took nearly a month to sell its first million units, and the second reportedly took several days to reach that figure.
Shaw Wu, an analyst with Sterne Agee, said his firm expected Apple to sell 2 million to 3 million of the new iPads by the close of its fiscal quarter, which ends March 31. The earlier-model iPad 2 will remain on sale at a discounted price of $399.
Apple's stock cracked the $600 mark for the first time in early trading Thursday — rising to $600.01 before dropping back to close at $585.56, down less than 1% on the day. Apple's market value — the total value of all its outstanding shares, is now more than $545 billion. It first rose past $500 billion on Feb. 29, just over two weeks ago.
Photos: Apple unveils new iPad