Customers began gathering Thursday afternoon outside the Sanlitun store. People in the crowd said the number grew to as many as 2,000 overnight but many left before dawn after word spread that the store opening would be canceled. There were about 350 people left when the protest erupted after 7 a.m.
"On the one hand there is poor organization and on the other there were just too many people," said a man outside the Sanlitun store Friday, who would give only his surname, Miao. "I don't think they prepared well enough."
Another man who refused to give his name said he was a migrant laborer who was paid 100 yuan ($15) to wait in line overnight.
Others in the crowd said scalpers had organized groups of 20 to 30 migrant workers to buy phones or hold places in line. Organizers held colored balloons aloft to identify themselves to their workers.
Others said they were waiting to buy the phone for themselves.
"I just like the 4S," said Zhu Xiaodong, a Beijing resident. He said he was upgrading from the previous iPhone 4 model.
Sales in China began three months after the iPhone 4S had its global debut Oct. 14 in the United States and six other countries.
The delay between the release of Apple products in the United States and in China has yet to affect its reputation with Chinese customers, said Ted Dean, managing director of BDA China Ltd., a research firm in Beijing.
For other products, such a delay "sort of gives the impression here that you're not giving the Chinese consumer a fair shake," Dean said. "But demand and that 'cool factor' is so huge for Apple products that you don't hear that about them."