People in certain countries—konnichiwa, Japan!—seem to love lining up for product launches. Elsewhere, not so much. The United States is somewhere in the middle: there are undoubtably people who get a kick out of sitting in makeshift chairs in the rain, pushing their way through Wal-Mart doors, or in some other way boldly staking their claim to be “first.” Except in Japan, where line-waiting is almost something of an art, complete with megaphone-wielding line managers, special line tickets, and occasionally paid line waiters, some form of chaos often ensues.

Then there’s everyone else—generally, people with jobs that won’t let them take a half-day or more to sit around for some new product release. They’d rather show up at a store at their convenience, maybe not even on the first day a product is on the market, have a little time to check it out in person, and then make a purchase. They sometimes wait for reviews and try to be informed before spending their money. Believe it or not, and despite hype to the contrary, the vast majority of people fall into the “wait a little while” category. “Early adopters” are a small minority.

After trying two line-up-style iPhone launches in a row, Apple scores points today for doing things better: specifically, in making the line optional. As we arrived today two hours before the iPhone 3GS’s release time to see what the crowds were like at our local AT&T Store, they were exactly as we predicted: non-existent. Is it the lack of demand for a hot new product? Probably not. Rather, it’s a testament to the more mature way that Apple and AT&T are handling this particular launch—the way that some companies in Japan have learned to handle launches: quietly, through pre-orders, so that everyone who actually wanted to spend money on launch day could do so without frustration. The yen saved on paying line-waiters, or earned by actually being able to work rather than wait in a line, can instead go towards buying accessories.

This time, pre-orders started on the day the iPhone 3GS were announced. Customers were told explicitly that they would have their iPhones delivered to their homes, or waiting at Apple or AT&T stores, on the day of launch. If at stores, they could come in as early as 7:00AM to pick them up, or wait until later at night, as their schedules permitted—the phones were reserved, and would be there for them. E-mail confirmations arrived from Apple the day before the launch, while AT&T both e-mailed and called on the phone to confirm specific individuals’ iPhones were in. Via delivery, the phones were promised to arrive specifically at some time on launch day. Apple then had them sitting in country from China a day or two early, waiting to be delivered at the “official” time.

We’ll see how the deliveries and the activation of phones by users in stores and at their homes plays out throughout the day. Last year, there were no deliveries, no pre-orders, and a messed-up activation process; consequently, utter chaos followed Apple’s launch events across the globe. People lined up for the iPhone 3G, then stood in line for many hours, sometimes fighting with Apple and AT&T representatives about their eligibility for various plans and prices right as they expected to be making purchases. After all the dust cleared, many Apple locations seemed to have had so many units that there had been no need to stand in line in the first place, while AT&T’s stores had so few that most of the crowds that gathered were turned away disappointed. It was the opposite of smooth, the opposite of customer-friendly, and quite possibly the most mishandled major product launch in Apple’s history.

Obviously, Apple has learned from that experience, and if nothing else, it deserves to be commended for the forethought that went into this launch. As of today, customers may not be universally happy with the iPhone 3GS’s upgrade prices, and they may not have gotten their pre-orders in before Apple and AT&T ran out of hardware to offer them. But at least they know where they stand, and don’t have to stand in a line to figure that out.