June 29, 2007

The Rock 'n Roll Phone Is King

Today was P-Day. June 29th 2007 may or may not go down in history for any great significance. But for geeks and tech consumers, it should be remembered as the day Justin Timberlake and his kind were usurped by a gadget. Yes, today was the day the iPhone was finally baked, out of the oven and served up to the masses by Apple.

And masses there were. If the blogs and rumor sites (not to mention the twitter buzz) were to be believed, with their live webcams and UStream feeds giving us up to the second accounts of all the activity outside every Apple Store across the nation, then every mothers son, brother and uncle were in line to purchase the little gadget that could.

The live feed from the Mall of America was covered by Justin.tv and Technology Evangelist, amongst many others, where the throng of onlookers was bigger than the line of customers. And the clapping and cheering and general warm fuzziness generated by someone else's purchase of consumer electronics seemed strangely disproportionate. It was like a Bizzaro World Beatles concert, or the Red M&M showing up for a book signing. And being several hours ahead of the Pacific Time Zone, the scene in Minneapolis was a portentous look ahead to what was possible here in California.

So I decided to go down to my local Apple Store and see if iPhone fever had made it beyond the Orange Curtain. I wanted to see if a place as safe and harmlessly boring as Orange County would succumb to the gadget groupie madness witnessed with our Eastern brothers. I had heard stories of people camping out overnight at area Apple Stores, and when I arrived at the South Coast Plaza mall at noon, there was a queue trailing back and around the block up to the food court, complete with sleeping bags and camping chairs. These people were hard core. OC has some spunk after all.

I took my video camera along, intending to vlog this thing, by interviewing some of the eager early-birds, to get a feel for what made this gadget the Mick Jagger of cell phones. But as was expected, security was out in numbers and on the scene in seconds. I had barely rolled tape when I was asked turn off. Company Policy. I could go down to the office and ask for a media pass and was politely shown the way. The management office was also very polite and understood the event taking place upstairs was newsworthy, but that independent media (bloggers) were not issued media passes. Company Policy.

Not to be deterred I went back up to the line and did things the old fashioned way. I asked questions and listened to answers. The answers I got revealed some interesting, well maybe not that interesting, patterns. Everyone I spoke to said they had been there since 4am. Admittedly I only got halfway down the line before I had to cut out, but that is quite a crowd of dedicated shoppers.

Most people were already Apple product owners. There were dozens of MacBooks in line keeping their owners busy with blogs and email. Many people owned some kind of Mac computer. Not surprisingly almost everyone already had at least one iPod. Many had two or three different models or generations. There were a few PC owners in the crowd, Andy from Huntington Beach had several PC's at home and a 2G iPod. He was more tech savvy than most of the non-geek consumer crowd there. Andy also carried a BlackBerry with him, which he vowed would be retired this evening.

When asked if they liked their current phone, the people I spoke to almost universally said they hated, or at least disliked, their current phone. Angela from Orange was a T-Mobile customer and would not be buying a phone today, but was there with her daughter who was. Angela was not a fan of Cingular/AT&T and like several people I spoke to had reservations about that particular facet of the deal.

There was also an enormous favoring of the 8GB model. None of the interviewees I spoke with said they were buying the 4GB model. I wonder how many 4GB were left on the shelf, or were grudgingly taken home because that's all that was left in stock. Many of them, a rough estimate of 50%, said they were buying two iPhone's today, at $600 a piece. "Aaah, so you are going to make some money on eBay?" I wondered out loud. "No, it is for my uncle/brother/father/friend." I was corrected. Interesting.

Strangely enough, there was no real pattern as to what was the killer app, the deal-breaker feature that made this product a must have for them. It was the general Appleness of it, the ability to manage voice-mail more functionaly, the ability to browse the web in a real browser. No one thing was commonly outstanding. Not the camera, not the ability to play video, not the built-in YouTube. Not the Yahoo Maps in your pocket. Not the multi-touch interface. It seemed everyone was just glazed over by the hype. Must-have-iphone-be-hip. Interesting.

When I returned to the store at 6pm in time for the reopening, the line now wrapped around the food-court and was winding its way back out into the avenue. There was a throng of onlookers, cell-phone cameras and consumer video cameras in hand, waiting to be a part of someone else's epic, life-changing retail transaction. When the first in line were let into the store, a great cheer was initiated by Apple employees, and joined by the onlookers. These scenes mimicking what I had witnessed online across the nation earlier in the day.

An Argentinian gentleman in the crowd was taking it all in, fascinated by the sociological implications this scene exposed. A local woman walking by, trying to get back to her car after innocently shopping in a nearby store, wondered what the heck was going on. Were the Rolling Stones doing a signing? What was with all the security? "A cell phone!!?" she exclaimed when I informed her of the event taking place. "Yes, but it's a pretty cool, nothing-else-like it kind of phone" I tried to convince her. "Sure it's cool, but it's still just a phone." She left, dumbfounded, obviously not having taken the KoolAid Apple has been pushing the past months. To some, rock 'n roll is still reserved for musicians. But for a bunch of people today, rock 'n roll was personified by a gadget.


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