28 June: At the Apple store on Fifth Avenue in New York, the first in line had already camped out earlier this week. Sightings of the device already in the possession of a privileged few were being reported, even photographed and posted on the Internet. Rumors have it that shipments are arriving in the dark of night, accompanied by armed guards.
All this for a cell phone. Steve Jobs, known for his marketing wizardry, has apparently convinced thousands of people that the Apple iPhone is no ordinary phone. But even those accustomed by now to the Apple chief executive's well-orchestrated product rollouts are struck by the frisson of anticipation he has managed to generate.
By one estimate, two-thirds of the population of the United States seem to be aware of the device, which combines a cell phone with an iPod with Internet access. It will finally be available Friday evening -- but only to those willing to wait in lines that promise to stretch for blocks. Wall Street analysts expect Apple and its partner AT&T to sell about 3 million phones within the first weeks
"It's masterful when you really think about it," said Jeremy Horwitz, the editor-in-chief of iLounge, a popular online publication read by iPod and iTunes users. "Ask yourself how many companies can announce a product six months in advance and not just sustain public interest but even build the frenzy. It's staggering to me."
The pre-introduction product hype and hysteria is not new, of course. Just ask any 12-year-old Harry Potter fan or middle-age Star Wars cultist. Last year, video game addicts slept on sidewalks outside Sony stores to be the first to buy the PlayStation 3.
But ever since Apple first let the world know about the Macintosh computer in 1984, with its Super Bowl commercial, the company has become the standard bearer in drum-roll marketing for consumer electronics.
Trent Lapinski, 20, a Web developer in Huntington Beach, Calif., has spent hours systematically researching the best store to find the device. Late last week, he drove to four AT&T and Apple stores in an effort to find an advantage.
An employee at an AT&T store tipped off Lapinski to another AT&T store tucked into a new housing development where no one has moved in yet. "They told me there probably won't be anyone there, so maybe I'll take my chances there," he said.
Ismail Elshareef, 31, a software engineer in Los Angeles, has his equipment -- sleeping bag, sleeping pad, camping chair, sweatshirt, sweat pants, breath mints and Chuck Palahniuk novel -- and strategy in place. On Saturday, he switched phone service from T-Mobile to AT&T. He planned to go to the Apple store at a nearby mall Wednesday night, and if a line were already forming, he planned to join it. If not, he planned to return today at 5 a.m.
The iPhone is arriving tightly wrapped in Apple's trademark secrecy. Employees at the 164 Apple stores and 1,800 AT&T Wireless stores were trained this week in how to use the iPhone, but they were given few other details that might come in handy.
On Saturday, a trio of employees at a store near Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh -- clad in T-shirts given to all Apple store employees last week that read, "June 29. The wait is almost over" -- tried to offer whatever advice they could to a patron wondering what time she should arrive on Friday.
Until Tuesday, they did not know how to activate the phones, or what they could tell customers about service contracts with AT&T. They certainly did not know how many iPhones their store would receive.
To fill the information gap, Web sites devoted to Apple-related news are reporting that shipments of the iPhone from Asia (via a "Hong Kong-based air courier") are accompanied by armed guards, and that all camera-enabled devices are being banned from Apple store stockrooms.
Gridskipper.com mapped where the closest public restrooms and other necessities are to a dozen Apple stores. The rate plan -- that is right, the rate plan -- garnered headlines Tuesday morning after the AT&T and Apple announcement. (The basic plan is $60 a month for 450 voice minutes, 200 text messages and unlimited Web browsing.)
One Web site caused a stir when it posted official memos AT&T sent to its store managers on the need for stanchions to keep the anticipated crowds on the sidewalk in lines, as well as a how-to script, which seemed to be written for sixth-graders, for speaking to building landlords about security.
At an AT&T Wireless store in downtown Sacramento, where iPhone posters were already in place, an employee noted the high degree of secrecy being demanded by Apple, adding that his job was on the line if he said too much.
Customers, in the meantime, are being teased with television commercials and a lengthy tutorial recently released on the Apple Web site. By late last week, in the windows of Apple stores around the country, giant mockups of the iPhone ran a video showing off the already fabled convergence of capabilities e-mail messaging, high- resolution video, music and full-scale Web browsing.
At $500 or $600, depending on the amount of memory, the 4.8- ounce device is expensive by any standards. And early reviews are already mixed. Yet little is likely to deter those who have their minds made up.
Jessica Rodriguez, 24, a student at Boricua College in New York City, nabbed the fourth place in line outside the Apple store on Fifth Avenue by 10 a.m. Tuesday. Rodriguez seemed more interested in the event than the actual phone. She said she planned to buy the phone for her sister as a birthday gift, but will buy one for herself, too, if she is allowed to buy two.
Ann Switzer, an artist who lives in Larkspur, Calif., just north of San Francisco, stood outside the Apple store in nearby Corte Madera, mesmerized by the big-screen video loop.
Switzer said she knew she should wait a few months, "just to make sure it's going to be everything Apple says it's going to be." No sooner had she said this, however, than she found emotion trumping practicality. "But ... I'd love to have one of these."
For those who cannot or will not wait in line, there are dozens of listings on CraigsList from people around the country offering their services as "line-waiters." They say they'll get in line a day ahead of time for around $250.
Within hours of posting his offer to sit in line at the Apple store in San Francisco for $300, Daniel Roberts, 27, a Web engineer, said he got three takers.
And what will happen on Friday evening? "It's going to be like world's biggest bra sale at Macy's, with screaming, shoving and yelling," said a former advertising executive who used to work on the Apple account. "Then everyone who gets one will be like post- injection heroin addicts, sitting there placidly with their iPhones."