Hype Meets Reality At iPhone's Debut

By Kim Hart and Sabrina Valle
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 30, 2007

Stephen Easley was the first person to emerge from the Apple Store in Clarendon, and a dozen television cameras trained on his new iPhone.

In his haste, he ripped open the package, and the phone he waited 20 hours to buy nearly bounced out of his hands and onto the concrete.

"Oh, my God," a woman gasped. "He almost dropped it!"

The iPhone hit shelves last night at Apple and AT&T stores across the country, after months of mystique and secrecy that even kept store managers in the dark about the logistics of the sale. The most ardent customers waited out hours of heat and rain, sometimes by the handful and in some cases by the hundreds, for a chance to be among the first to shell out $500 to $600 for the device.

Some said they expected the phone to change their lives. Others said they just wanted bragging rights over less-patient friends. Many were hoping to resell at a steep markup.

Just before opening time at the Apple Store in Tysons Corner, a line of some 200 people snaked out the door, through the mall and onto the sidewalk.

George Kennedy, 38, of the District, was the first in that line and triumphantly held up his two iPhones to the cheers of the crowds behind him. He said he had stood in line since 4 a.m., leaving only once to get a bite from McDonald's and trusting his neighbors in line to hold his coveted spot.

At the store in Clarendon, security officers carefully controlled the crowd of 200 customers as if they were waiting to get into a club, while the AT&T store in Friendship Heights sold out of an undisclosed number of iPhones by 7 p.m. after starting selling the devices at 6 p.m.

By 7:30, dozens of iPhones were posted on Craigslist for resale in the Washington area, listed from $700 to $1,200.

Analysts and skeptics warned of the new phone's potential downsides. AT&T's network, the sole carrier for the iPhone, sends data slower than some of its rivals. And industry analysts said even the hallowed iPhone may need some time to work out the kinks.

"No one waited in line to get an iPod, and it got mediocre reviews," said Chris Null, a consumer adviser for Yahoo Tech. "It didn't consume the market until the second or third version, once the issues had been worked out."

But Apple's carefully orchestrated marketing and controlled media strategy helped heap fuel on consumer and media fascination.

Apple even kept its employees in the dark.

A week before the launch, Apple started prohibiting Apple Store employees from bringing camera-enabled cellphones and laptops into the store out of fear that a glimpse of the device could slip out, according to an Apple employee. When the first batch of iPhones arrived at stores last week, they were scattered through the stockroom, hidden among piles of other boxes.

To prevent cutting in line, employees at some Apple stores handed out colored arm bands to mark customers' places. Off-duty police officers were hired to stand guard overnight Thursday and all day yesterday at each of AT&T's 70 locations in the Washington area.

"This entire launch was scripted right down to the second," said Colin Martin, AT&T's director of sales for the Washington region.

The tight security may not have been necessary, some Apple loyalists said. Compared with Sony's release of PlayStation3 last year -- which triggered robberies, pepper-spray attacks and even a shooting -- the iPhone launch was tame.

Even after 15 hours of waiting in 90 percent humidity and bouts of rain, iPhone hopefuls shared snacks, made communal coffee runs and exchanged e-mail addresses to swap their iPhone experiences.

Stephen Hayes, 19, staked his place in line at 1 a.m. yesterday. Six of his friends have already claimed visitation rights with his new iPhone.

The coolest part about his purchase?

"I get to call my best friend in California, who has to wait another three hours to get one, and rub it in his face," he said.

Some, like Joel Bradshaw, 45, who works for a Chantilly defense contractor, waxed philosophical about the iPhone's cultural impact, likening it to a massive "paradigm shift" or "Gestalt effect" while he waited for 21 hours to spend $1,600 on two phones and accessories.

Not all the people there were as motivated by the iPhone itself as by the profit potential of reselling the phones as soon as they left the store.

Glenn Sparico, an IT consultant from the District, arrived at the Clarendon store at 9:30 yesterday morning to buy two of the phones, not for himself, but for the highest bidder on eBay. "I have an iPod, and I have a phone. Why do I need a device that does the same things?"

Sobriety came from other corners of the industry as well.

"People act as if this can bring world peace and cure cancer -- yet it can't download songs over the air," said Roger Entner, senior vice president of the communications sector of IAG Research.

Mic Wendt, 20, of Chevy Chase, was the first to arrive at AT&T's Friendship Heights store, showing up at midnight Thursday. He plopped a mattress on the sidewalk and brought enough junk food to sustain him and his four friends. When no one else showed up for several hours, they almost abandoned camp.

"But being the first to get one was all that mattered," he said, although he hopes to turn around and sell it online for a considerable profit. "Are you kidding? I'm not going to waste my money on a $600 phone."

Staff writer Alejandro Lazo contributed to this report.

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