iPhone mania reaches fever pitch

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SAN FRANCISCO -- On the eve of the day of reckoning for the most-hyped gadget in recent memory, eager customers lined up Thursday, a few even braving torrential rain, to be among the first to get their hands on the coveted new cell phone from Apple Inc.

With the clock ticking down on the iPhone's debut, the sleek communications device that triples as an iPod player and wireless Web browser also had been parodied on late night television, splashed across promotional giveaways and become the focus of endless anticipatory chatter.

The phone, which goes on sale at 6 p.m. in each time zone of the United States on Friday, had hogged so much of the media spotlight that St. Paul, Minn.'s minor league baseball team planned to spoof its porcine mascot by selling a real 'iPig.'

"This phone is going to blow everything out of the water," Tony Cecchini, 40, a San Antonio, Texas air conditioner salesman said while braving a downpour to wait outside an AT&T store Thursday morning.

Apple and AT&T Inc. -- the phone's exclusive cellular carrier -- have not disclosed how many units will be available at launch, adding to the frenzy that more typically accompanies the releases of video game consoles.

Featuring a 3.5-inch touch-screen display, the iPhone will cost $499 for a 4-gigabyte model and $599 for an 8-gigabyte edition.

People armed with sleeping bags and folding chairs started lining up on Monday outside Apple's flagship store in New York City, but in the company's San Francisco Bay area backyard, residents apparently took a more laid-back approach and didn't start queuing up until Thursday.

"I got here at 8 a.m. and was shocked I was the first in line," said Jerry Taylor, a San Francisco marketing consultant and longtime Macintosh computer user who set up a golf-putting green on the sidewalk to keep himself and a friend entertained. "God put us here, it was meant to be."

Unlike Apple devotees waiting in line elsewhere, Taylor, 54, said he did not start lusting after the iPhone until he read about its features in media reviews. Taylor said he had never camped out in line for anything else.

Others were looking to turn a quick profit, expecting the product to sell out quickly and drive up online auction bids to triple the retail price.

"We're college kids looking for money," said Josh May, 18, of Benecia, Calif., who with four buddies formed an ad hoc business called "iWait" to stand in line for people who couldn't do it themselves. May and his friends were the first ones in line at the Apple store in downtown Walnut Creek, Calif. after arriving there Wednesday.

Other companies, ranging from Playboy to eMusic.com, tried to catch a ride on the iPhone publicity wave.

"Steve Jobs has delivered the hardware and now Hugh Hefner has delivered the software," Playboy stated in announcing its fresh "iPlayboy" offerings -- free downloads of wallpaper photos and videos made especially for the iPhone.

In San Antonio, AT&T's hometown, Cecchini and his wife, Liz, arrived at 7:30 a.m. to be the first -- and only ones -- in line at the AT&T store. The couple hopes to pick up three of the 8-gig models -- one for each of them, and one for their 15-year-old daughter, who has already been warned not to take hers to school.

Tony Cecchini, who planned to trade in his Treo smart phone from Palm Inc. for an iPhone, said he's not worried the Apple device was oversold because he's convinced designers have figured out how to fully integrate features that are cumbersome on other phones.

"This phone is the cutting edge," he said.

Executives at rival smart phone makers nervously awaited initial iPhone sales figures from Apple.

"I've never seen the kind of feeding frenzy we've seen in the media," Palm's chief executive officer Ed Colligan said during a conference call with analysts Thursday. Palm reported a 43% plunge in its fourth-quarter profits amid rising costs and blistering competition that offset record Treo sales.

"We expect it to be a very successful product -- but I don't know how it can possibly live up to the hype," Colligan said.
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