As 6:00 p.m. approached Friday, the mob in front of the Apple Inc.'s flagship San Francisco store counted down the seconds as if it were New Year's Eve.
Eric Eisher took in the whole scene with amusement.
"I'm here for the experience," said Eisher, of Berkeley. "I think of marketing as a form of art."
In what could be the most anticipated product launch ever--or the most diabolical marketing campaign--the iPhone arrived in San Francisco, just 44 miles from Apple Inc.'s Cupertino headquarters in Silicon Valley, where so many technological advances have been born.
Farther north, in Seattle, interest in the iPhone in archrival Microsoft's backyard, was as high as anywhere else in the country.
Eisher was the second person in line outside the San Francisco store, having camped out in a small tent since Thursday morning. He awoke Friday, turned on his computer and used the Apple Store's free Wi-Fi service, which extended out to the sidewalk. "I saw a picture of myself on Yahoo News," he said.
Mike Farr had his assistant wait in line for him to buy an iPhone. An active stock trader, Farr says that he bought the iPhone in large part for its Web browser.
"I'm terrified of being away from my computer, at least during trading hours," he said. Now, he says, he can take the Web with him.
As 6:00 p.m. approached, hundreds of customers crowded the sidewalk, and TV news cameras were outnumbered by scores of personal camcorders and cell phone cameras. Other people took photos from the windows of city buses riding by. New iPhone owners who couldn't wait to activate them, went to a cafe across the street that offered free Wi-Fi and got their iPhones functioning; one person said that doing so took only 3 minutes.
But other passersby were puzzled by the iPhone mania.
"You can order it online," said Elizabeth Bassin, of Santa Barbara, as she watched the commotion from across the street. An Apple user, she is going to wait for a second-generation iPhone to come along after the inevitable bugs are worked out.
The iPhone's pull was felt up north in Seattle, too, home to Apple's rival, Microsoft.
Adrian, who asked that his last name not be used, was among the Microsoft employees standing in line at an Apple Store. Though he wouldn't point them out, he said that two other Microsofties from the Windows Mobile division were in line, planning to buy phones for competitive research.
Adrian's friend Anna, also a Microsoft employee, agreed to come along to buy two additional phones for him. Apple set a two-phones-per-person limit Friday. Adrian, who already has a couple of Windows Mobile phones, said he wanted an iPhone because he expects the user interface to be superior. He and Anna both arrived at around 5:30 in the morning and found about 35 people already in line.
By 5:00 in the afternoon, Anton, another line waiter who asked that his last name not be used, was at the end of the line in position number 174. Some other people nearby said that they had similarly waited for other newly released gadgets like the Play Station, but Anton said that the only other time he'd stood in a similar line was as a boy in Russia, waiting for eggs.
He was one of the few people at the Seattle store who hadn't yet decided whether to buy the phone. When the doors finally opened at 6:00, store employees instructed committed buyers to head left and people interested in trying out the phone to head right. After they let in enough people to fill the store to capacity, only one person was on the right side of the store, a young boy playing with a phone. Everyone else seemed to have been sold on the phone's features already.
Greg Korsgard was the first in line and the first out with a phone. He'd spent the night camped out in front of the store, so he said that the first thing he was going to do when he got home--even before trying out the phone--was shower.
A Sprint store and a Radio Shack store in the same shopping area were both quiet, and an AT&T store had a short line out front. A Verizon Wireless advertising truck drove around the parking lot, often meeting with jeers from iPhone enthusiasts.
Tino Novellino was one of the last people in line at the San Francisco store, standing a full two blocks from the entrance. He's heard all the criticism of the iPhone--that the EDGE network it operates on is slower than new 3G networks, and that it's too expensive. But he's still impressed.
"It looks like the best device ever released," he said; then he paused. "We'll see."