Waiting for iPhone: A running diary

For the first time since 1994 (San Jose Sharks playoff tickets), I waited in a big line to buy something. What drew me out? The iPhone, of course. Here's a running diary of the buying and activation process.

Unlike Sacha Segan's covert odyssey to pick up his iPhone test unit, I went the old fashioned route - waiting in line. Armed only with a bottle of water, a 49ers seat cushion, and a book (Richard Price's Clockers), I braved the line at the AT&T store in El Cerrito Plaza in El Cerrito, Calif.

I had scouted the location the day before, discovering that the store would close at 4:30pm then re-open at 6:00pm for the iPhone sale. There was no one in the line at the time, so it was simply a matter of choosing the right time the next day to minimize my line time, but still ensure I could buy a unit. My gut feeling was that the whole iPhone experience was over-hyped, and that the number of people willing to dish out $500 to $600 on a cell phone would be relatively limited. Of course, the iPhone's awesomeness has been drilled into our collective heads for months now, so who knows? The lines in New York certainly seem intimidating...

That night I received a call from someone at a place where I used to work IT. She needed information on the iPhone fast. Apparently, a group of her employees has submitted an emergency requisition for an iPhone for everyone in the group. I explained to her what I knew about the device, things it would be good for, things it could not do. Her IT director was on vacation so she was flying blind. Gotta love those sneaky employees. I'm guessing they had no business need at all for iPhone, but felt their bling would help them do their jobs. My advice to IT people everywhere... the iPhone will be around your network somewhere. Pay attention, because it will pop up, whether you support it or not.

Anyway, here's a little running diary of my iPhone buying experience (and yes, I got one):

4:15 - I had heard rumors of massive lines at the Apple and AT&T stores in Emeryville, but the El Cerrito branch I chose seemed sparsely attended. Upon my arrival, I estimated my place in line somewhere between 40th and 50th. I feel pretty secure that I will be able to one.

4:27 - Rumors floating in line. I hear that an AT&T store representative came through a little before I showed up, hinting that everyone in line at the time will get an iPhone. The buzz is that the store has 40 units in stock and the guy in the green shirt (4th before me in the line) is getting the last unit. Well maybe this will suck after all.

4:32 - It is definitely not a party atmosphere in line. I do not sense either enthusiasm or worry from the people around me, but things are highly civil and orderly, which is good since the store does not seem to be implementing any kind of line control at all, save for a single security guard (who looks around 70 years old) at the front of the line. Everyone does seem pleasant with a wait-and-see attitude, so I'm guessing we shouldn't have any trouble as time goes by. However, I am getting tired of the questions from passersby about what we are doing. Yes, this line is for the iPhone and yes, we are all a little crazy.

4:35 - Maybe I won't get an iPhone, but the line experience isn't bad. The line snakes around the corner from the AT&T store, passing in front of ColdStone Creamery and a Starbucks. The Starbucks has an outdoor patio, from which several of us have liberated chairs. I won't be needing the seat cushion after all. And now a Starbucks employee has brought out free Frappachino samples - strawberry blended creme. Nice.

4:45 - The line has not grown much behind me. Only eight more people have joined in the last half hour. Perhaps people sense the futility at this point.

4:52 - Raspberry Mocha Frappachino sample. I'm starting to think I may need to look for a bathroom before this is all over. Better slow down on the water.

5:23 - A woman I presume is an AT&T store manager works her way down the line, asking everyone how many units they represent. She informs each person that they can only buy a single iPhone at this time, but I guess she is trying to gauge how many people are saving a place in line for people. To my surprise, I am number 39. I guess a few people are just there for entertainment. The woman counts into the mid-50 at the end of line. She tells us all that she can't say for sure how many units she has to sell, but everyone here right now should be ok, but she will soon need to start telling new people in line that they may need to have the unit shipped to them later. Not yet, but soon.

5:35 - Nothing like a captive audience to try to sell things. I've just been pitched a free T-Shirt by an Apple accessory company called FastMac, and for a solar USB charging device from a company called Solio. The latter looks really cool as it has little solar panels and an integrated battery so you can charge a device from anywhere. You can also plug the device in to charge the battery the old fashioned way. Check it out.

5:50 - OK, the magic hour is almost upon us and people are starting to get a little ancy. And it looks like the line has bloomed up to around 80 or 90 people.

6:00 - Halleluah, the doors open! Everyone stands up and the line compresses, so I can actually see the front of the AT&T store now. The security guard lets the first six people into the store.

6:10 - The first two people come out, bags in hand. Two more are let in.

6:25 - Wow, this is taking a long time. The third person just came out. I guess everyone has a lot of questions.

6:28 - Well this doesn't bode well for the AT&T network. The store manager woman just came out to explain what's going on. They are running credit pre-authorizations on each person in line so customers do not need to come back to the store if they fail the credit check (to leave a deposit). And since every AT&T outlet in the country is doing this, the computers are very, very slow. Things should improve as the east coast stores go dark.

This makes me wonder how the oft-maligned EDGE network used by the iPhone will handle the surge in traffic from all these buyers that will be on the network by tomorrow. Ugh.

6:38 - The nearby Rubio's just dispatched someone to service the line with a tray full of burritos. Chicken, steak, fish - only $6.00. Surprisingly only two people buy anything. I wonder what will happen to the rest of those unwanted burritos...

6:42 - Starbucks sample again, this time some apple cider with caramel.

6:45 - Everyone around me is quite jealous that my work is actually paying for the device. Once word got out that I review computer products for a living I was suddenly bombarded with questions. Will the iPhone be better than my Treo? What external hard drive should I buy? Firewire or USB? I didn't realize that last question was still up for debate...

7:00 - East coast stores should now be closed and indeed the line has been going faster the last few minutes. I'm 15th in line right now. The store manager woman came back, and while directly looking at my chunk of the line she audibly supposes that direct fullfillment from Apple will be necessary . She's not actually talking directly to any of us, but I think she's dropping a hint that my little cluster is right on the edge. I love how obscure this all is. Sure, she could count out how many are left in the store and how many people are in line, then start taking fulfillment orders from the people in the rear. That would be too nice though. Better to make everyone wait even though it is obvious many are leaving tonight with nothing.

She does mention that she has more 8 GB units left than 4 GB ones. I guess eWeek will have to spring for the expensive model. Lucky me!

7:20 - As the hour progresses, conversation has seemed to die out. I know I am ready to not be here.

7:40 - Front of the line! I feel confident enough that I call my editor to let him know I will get a unit and the review is a go.

7:45 - I'm in! The salesman who greets me asks "Do you want 8 or 4 GB?" I say it doesn't matter. He says, "Good, we only have 4 GB left." Sheesh, why did you ask then? Turns out the guy right before me got the last 8 GB unit. Nuts...

7:46 - A little background here. I bought my current cell phone from AT&T Wireless in 2003. The next year, Cingular bought AT&T and much later, Cingular became the new AT&T. But I have had the same voice rate plan the whole time. I assume that need will need to finally update to a modern plan to use with the iPhone, so I mention this to the salesman. He says I can simply choose a new plan when I activate the unit at home with iTunes. Why am I dubious this will work right?

7:50 - We spent some time waiting for a computer to free up for the salesman to ring me up. There's one empty workstation in the back which isn't getting used because, apparently, it crashes all the time. This news does not stop my guy from trying to use it. Hey look! It froze again.

7:52 - OK, we are at a working computer. I guess because I am an existing customer, I don't need a credit pre-authorization, because I am not getting one.

7:55 - And, we are done! I am the proud keeper of a 4 GB iPhone. This was not hard at all. But I really need some dinner.

9:00 - Dinner is done, and we finished watching Hitchcock's "The Birds" before I decided to start activating the phone. My advice to Tippi Hedren, turn your face to the wall, open door, leave. Waving your flashlight has proven ineffective.

9:05 - Downloading and installing iTunes 7.3.

9:15 - My fears about the rate plan may have borne out. Once I connected the iPhone to my PC with the latest iTunes, the activation wizard started automatically. I chose to upgrade my existing number to the iPhone but there was no choice to select a new rate plan. The only options were to add a data plan to my existing plan for $20, add 1500 SMS for $10 or unlimited SMS for $20. Well, we'll see if this works.

9:20 - I just received e-mail from the iTunes store telling me that my activation in being processed and an e-mail will notify me when everything is ready to go. Just a waiting game now.

11:33 - E-mail from iPhone Activation Support. My rate plan is not supported on the iPhone. I have to call AT&T to fix it. I am going to bed.

More tomorrow.