"It will be a madhouse," says Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster.
Richard Doherty, an independent tech analyst with the Envisioneering Group, says this is "the most awkward Apple launch since the first iPhone."
"Apple expected the pre-orders to be a 10-hour cycle, and they were shocked that it was just one hour. They clearly were caught by surprise by the size of the orders," Doherty says. Had they continued fulfilling online orders, "they might have only had two phones available at stores on Friday."
Phones ordered online won't be delivered until Oct. 5 at the earliest, according to Apple's website. And analysts say phones available at retail, starting at 8 a.m. Friday, will probably be sold out by Sunday.
Munster projects sales of 6 million to 10 million iPhone 5s in the first week, most of which will be in the Friday-Sunday time period. That compares to sales of 4 million of the iPhone 4S on its first weekend last October.
Munster says the iPhone 5 probably won't be back in stock for weeks. "For the iPhone 4 and iPad 2, they were gone after the first weekend, and there were lines for weeks afterwards," he says.
The iPhone 5 starts at $199 with a new or extended two-year contract. If you're not yet eligible for the upgrade, the iPhone starts at $649.
Here's where to get the phone:
Apple. Brave the line at an Apple retail store (Munster thinks fans will start lining up earlier in the week.) Doors open at 8 a.m. (local time) on Friday.
Walmart. You can pre-order in the store with a $25 deposit, and return to pick it up. Calls to random Walmart stores said the phone might be available Friday or later, depending upon the size of its shipment. The chain throws in a free movie rental from its Vudu digital service.
Best Buy. The iPhone 5 goes on sale Friday, in-store. The online site isn't taking orders or pre-orders, but is taking them in-store, with a $50 deposit. It hopes to fulfill orders on Friday.
Radio Shack. Pre-order in store with a $50 deposit, and come back for the phone. Calls to stores said buyers should get their phones, if not by Friday, then by Monday.
The wireless carriers. AT&T (ships within 14-21 business days), Verizon (ships Oct. 5) and Sprint (ships Oct. 5) online with pre-orders. Or purchase at stores on Friday.
"I'd recommend consumers skip the carrier stores on Friday because they'll try to upsell you on services, and the line will go really slow," Doherty says. "They might find more satisfaction at a retailer."
Doherty believes the line for the iPhone 5 will be the longest and most intense since the first iPhone went on sale in 2007, attracting as many as 1 million folks. But there's more to it than just heavy consumer demand in the U.S.
Consumers in other countries where the iPhone 5 won't be on sale until later also want to be first on the block with the hot new device, and will pay handsomely for it. Doherty thinks every other person on the line will be buying phones to ship out to buyers elsewhere.
"We expect a lot of FedEx boxes to be going out to China that day," Doherty says.
(Copyright © 2012 USA TODAY)