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Saturday, June 30, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Answering iPhone's call

Seattle Times business reporters

It may not have been the ringtone heard 'round the world, but there sure was a lot of fuss over a phone Friday.

At 6 p.m., the Apple iPhone went on sale — and not soon enough for the thousands across the country who had waited in line for hours, or days, to finally get the sleek device into their hands.

At the Apple Store in Bellevue, after counting down the final seconds, customers rushed in to high-fives from store employees, emerging minutes later with smiles, cheers — and phones.

"It's awesome ... awesome!" said 16-year-old Kalvin Naidoo of Issaquah, who had been waiting since early Friday.

That scene and the waiting that preceded it were duplicated in different forms at thousands of AT&T and Apple Stores across the country. At a Silicon Valley, Calif., mall, waiting customers gave Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who showed up on a Segway at 4 a.m., the honorary first place in line.

The iPhone, sold exclusively at Apple and AT&T stores, is viewed by many as a game changer for the smartphone industry, just as the iPod has been for music.

Since Chief Executive Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone at Macworld in January, the device has touched off a level of hype not seen even in the often hype-filled world of technology. But those high expectations could represent a risk for Apple if the device doesn't sell well after the initial hoopla of Friday's launch.

Perhaps the iPhone's most distinctive feature is a touch screen that allows users to pinch their fingers together to zoom in and out. The device, sporting Apple's trademark design, can also be used to browse the Web, make calls on the AT&T cellphone network and play music.

It starts at a relatively pricey $500, plus at least $60 a month for a voice and data plan, but that didn't deter the lines of enthusiasts and gadget geeks in the Puget Sound area who came prepared beginning Thursday with folding chairs, laptops and coffee for the chance to be one of the first to own the device.

Malls provided protection from the rain for some, as others waiting on sidewalks were exposed to the occasional shower. To kill time, many wrote about their experiences on blogs, posted pictures on the Internet or played Scrabble and other games.

At the Apple Store in University Village, about 25 people camped out overnight. By Friday they had banded together and were in good spirits; the crowd grew to more than 100. They helped get food for each other and watch their spots in line. They made sure people didn't sneak in.

Ryan Rawson, 30, of Seattle, said he wanted the iPhone because "most phones suck. Hopefully this will be a do-over for the cellphone industry."

He liked that the iPhone's software is upgradeable. "You are buying the phone you will have forever," he said.

At Bellevue Square, about 100 people were waiting by midafternoon, with employees from a nearby Starbucks coming by with a coffee cart (compliments of Apple) every hour and a half.

"I'm hoping it will make me cool," Ryan Petty, 37, joked of the phone, which he was getting for himself, as well as one for his wife.

Colin Henry, 25, said his girlfriend thinks he's crazy when it comes to the device. "Since Jan. 9, 2007, I have been following the iPhone fanatically," he said. "Sort of sad to say, it's almost been a problem."

Several of those in line said they plan to sell the iPhones — each customer at Apple's stores could buy two — on Craigslist. One teen at Bellevue Square said he had had four calls to buy his on Friday afternoon, hours before he could even get one.

At an AT&T store on Capitol Hill, some people waiting in line received phone calls from friends on the East Coast from their new iPhones (sales started at 6 p.m. in each time zone). More than 50 people stood along Pike Street, reaching to the corner of Broadway.

Not everyone who waited in line Friday was in a festive mood. One woman at Bellevue Square, who didn't want to be identified, said she worked at Microsoft and had been tag-teaming a place in line to buy an iPhone to research its technology. Several other customers at the front of the line identified themselves only as "anonymous technology enthusiasts," but linemates said they appeared to be from Microsoft.

The Microsoft presence was even more evident at the AT&T store at Redmond Town Center. Many who were there — just a few miles from Microsoft's campus — wore Microsoft T-shirts, Xbox sweatshirts and even employee badges. One employee said an entire team within the Windows Mobile group was there to buy a phone to check out the competition. Microsoft released the sixth version of its Windows Mobile operating system earlier this year.

The sales process appeared to go smoothly at the different sites, but the computer network at the Capitol Hill store bogged down for a spell after 6 p.m. Employees blamed the heavy traffic across the country as sales piled up.

Neither Apple nor AT&T disclosed how many units went on sale Friday, but there didn't seem to be the kind of shortages associated with initial sales of video-game consoles. But it could be a while for units to arrive after the initial batch runs out.

For those who waited in line, that isn't a problem. Barbara Jamieson, 30, waited overnight at Redmond Town Center with her fiancé, Chris Raca, and got two. And what now?

"We'll be up another 24 hours just playing with it," she said.

Material from Seattle Times technology columnist Brier Dudley and The Associated Press is included in this report.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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