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Call it a call-in: Throngs turn the debut into a happening

Lines form before dawn for the handset's 6 p.m. launch.

June 30, 2007|Dawn C. Chmielewski, Michelle Quinn and Alana Semuels | Times Staff Writers

Throngs of people packed up their lawn chairs, their laptops and their fortitude to be among the first in the country to buy the latest lusted-after electronic object from Apple Inc.: the iPhone.

Apple considers the iPhone its biggest product launch since the Macintosh in 1984. The iPod portable music player, introduced in the weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was a more subdued affair. But Apple's venture into mobile phones has been greeted with the kind of fervor usually reserved for game-console debuts or hard-to-score concert tickets.

The Cupertino, Calif., company is trying to leverage the popularity of its iPod, of which it has sold 100 million, to break into the crowded yet lucrative cellular phone market.

"There's nothing like coming here to see people excited about it," said Greg Joswiak, Apple's vice president of iPod product marketing, grinning like a proud new parent as he surveyed the line of people waiting outside the Apple store at the Grove shopping center in Los Angeles. "These are just normal people. They're not computer geeks. They're normal folks."

Apple closed its 164 U.S. stores at 2 p.m. Friday to prepare for the sale of the iPhone, which began at 6 p.m.

The lines began forming before dawn at the Grove, where one Mac devotee, Jonathan Mariano, 27, returned repeatedly to the Apple store throughout the night -- and was shooed away each time -- until 4 a.m., when security relented and let him stay. By midday, hundreds of people, all sheltered under donated blue umbrellas emblazoned with "The Grove" in big gold letters, formed a line that wound all the way down the center of the open-air mall's main street and spilled out onto two side streets.

"We get big attendance like this for our tree-lighting ceremony and our summer concert series," said David Swift, marketing director for the Grove. "I don't know if I've seen big crowds of people like this for one item."

It was like that at Apple stores around the country. In a scene evocative of the annual Rose Parade, people broke out their folding chairs and formed a line along Colorado Boulevard in Old Pasadena to wait for the Apple store to begin the sale. At the Westfield Century City mall in Los Angeles, 150 people were sitting in lounge chairs and on sleeping bags, watching movies on their Mac computers, listening to their iPods and chatting with their neighbors in line about how many phones might be in the stores.

For some, the event took on the significance of a cultural happening -- the equivalent of the dawning of the new millennium or the "Human Be-In" in Golden Gate Park that launched 1960s counterculture. "The whole event has tremendous technological and popular culture significance," said Lincoln Gasking of Los Angeles, who waited at the Grove with his brother. "You want to be part of events like this."

Gasking said he was so frustrated with his old smart phone, the Treo, he planned to put it through a wood chipper, then upload the video to YouTube.

Nate Clukey, 35, a pet sitter from Santa Monica, was the first in line at the Apple store in the Manhattan Village mall in Manhattan Beach. Mall security wouldn't permit a line to form until 6 a.m., but Clukey arrived at 3 a.m. and hid behind four large planters to avoid detection.

"I would do that again all night long," Clukey said. "How many chances do you get to be like a ninja?"

Clukey, a veteran line-sitter who camped out for eight weeks before the opening of "Star Wars" episodes I, II and III, began charging the device in the store so it would be ready for an anime convention this weekend.

In Northern California, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and his entourage held court on couches in front of the Apple store at the Westfield Valley Fair mall in Santa Clara. They had arrived at 4 a.m., when 75 people were outside asleep. Four with Segways, including Wozniak, persuaded the mall staff to let them in, and they tooled around the mall for a few hours.

As a courtesy to the company's co-founder, the store let Wozniak be the first to buy the iPhone at the Santa Clara store, amid a cheering crowd that included Apple employees.

"I feel wonderful. It's exhilarating," said David Jackson, 51, an engineer at Cisco Systems Inc., who had waited since 6 p.m. Thursday. "Man, that was cool. I was shaking at the counter. I couldn't even sign my name."

One proud new iPhone owner, Saied Ghaffari, 23, of Cupertino, went so far as to activate the phone before he even left the mall. The online activation took about a minute.

"Take a picture of this," said Ghaffari to a friend. "This is history."

Some saw the hotly anticipated iPhone as the ticket to some fast cash.

Brian Zarabian, 15, and Michael Ohebsion, 16, were Nos. 4 and 5 in line at the Westfield Century City mall. They arrived around 6 p.m. Thursday, prepared for a long night.

"I was freezing and he wouldn't share his blanket," Zarabian joked.

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