Saturday, June 30, 2007

Iphone Debuts - Atlanta

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By SCOTT LEITH , LEON STAFFORD
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 06/30/07

Apple's siren song was answered.

The company that tempted customers with the iPhone saw them show up en masse for Friday night's retail launch of the device. From the city to the suburbs, eager buyers stationed themselves outside AT&T and Apple stores for a day or more, tolerating heat, humidity and even thunderstorms.

They plunked down a few hundred dollars and left with phones that — for a certain kind of person — have turned into nothing short of an obsession.

"My Nokia is old school ugly," said Demetrius Sharp, 33, of Atlanta. "I've been suffering. I deserve this."

The iPhone was unveiled in January with a flashy presentation by Apple honcho Steve Jobs. The device soon become the most-anticipated product the cellphone industry has ever seen.

Atlanta has played a solid supporting role in the maelstrom, given that AT&T's wireless unit is the exclusive provider of the iPhone. The Atlanta-based operation was in a frenzy during the launch, and many of its stores were thronged with buyers Friday.

"There are lines everywhere," AT&T spokeswoman Dawn Benton said. "In Savannah, we've got 50 or 60 people. Hilton Head, 30 or 40. It's just everywhere."

As the clock wound down for the 6 p.m. launch, cheers erupted among the crowds outside the Apple store at Lenox Square in Atlanta. The gathered group — much like those outside Times Square in New York during New Year's Eve — counted down the final minutes until the hot product was sold.

Then the buyers, several hundred of them, began slowly filing into the Apple store.

The iPhone has turned into both a pop culture phenomenon and a media obsession. But the early response to the debut shows many consumers are infatuated, too.

The line at the Apple in Lenox Square wrapped around the upper level of the mall, ending around Bloomingdale's. In it, iPhone fans were making friends with each other, describing the features they like most.

Stores and marketers inside the mall took advantage of those in line. Representatives of Red Bull handed out drinks, and the Nike store provided energy bars. Young entrepreneurs handed out CDs and flyers to clubs.

Some expected the iPhone to be most popular in places where iPods are ubiquitous — big cities like New York and San Francisco. Indeed, long lines formed early in those places.

But the iPhone's appeal seemed to stretch everywhere, despite being priced at $499 or $599, depending on memory.

In Boise, Idaho, a line at an AT&T store had 20 people by midafternoon. "It's almost like I have to buy one. God is telling me to buy it," 45-year-old computer consultant Ron Rabehl told the Spokesman newspaper.

In Ridgeland, Miss., a Jackson suburb, folks lined up more than 24 hours in advance. Jesse W. Mason, a 25-year-old graphic designer, hadn't planned to sleep outside an AT&T store but did so when he noticed a line had formed.

Atlantans flocked to stores, too.

At an AT&T store near Gwinnett Place Mall in Duluth, more than 60 people waited in line to get an iPhone — 60 very hot people.

The lines snaked along the side of the shopping center past a sushi restaurant and hair salon, their awnings providing some shade. People sat on the ground. Others brought camp chairs. A few listened to iPods to pass the last hour until 6 p.m.

A Gwinnett County police officer was stationed nearby, though the droopy-looking crowd seemed too heat-oppressed to be much of a concern.

At Atlantic Station, Brian Norwood waited overnight in the rain outside AT&T's store.

Norwood said he arrived with "military precision," exactly 24 hours before the iPhone went on sale. He was armed with a comfy chair, toothpaste, magazines, a writing pad and plenty of snacks and beverages.

"I wrote a lot of letters overnight," he said, although Thursday night's downpour forced him to huddle under the store's small awning. "It was a wet night."

Karen Lewis of Stone Mountain stationed herself at AT&T's store near Northlake Mall Thursday morning, then sat through monsoon-like rain later that night to be ready for the launch.

"That phone is off the chain," said Lewis, a 45-year-old who works at a barber shop on Auburn Avenue in downtown Atlanta. She doesn't own a computer but considers herself a gadget freak.

Many early buyers are just this kind of buyer. Others are Apple loyalists.

"Apple products are innovative," said Andrew Hanhauser, 25, who lined up for an iPhone at Apple's store at Lenox Square. "When Dell comes out with a new product, nobody cares. Nobody waits in line," said Hanhauser, a consultant for IBM who took the day off to get his iPhone.

Though some have questioned whether the iPhone would live up to expectations, Jeremy Raymond, 22, said the purchase was a no-brainer. "Think about it. In this pocket, I carry my iPod. In this pocket I carry my phone. I carry my laptop in my bag," said Raymond, who lined up at Lenox. "I can put all those things together."

Time will tell if the iPhone becomes a durable success like the iPod. Early reviews from a few gadget experts were largely good, especially about the phone's design and groundbreaking Internet browser.

But many complained that the phone uses AT&T's relatively slow EDGE network to surf the Web. Apple chose EDGE because the network is widely available and saps less battery power than a device that uses AT&T's fastest system, known as 3G.

Just before Friday's launch, however, AT&T juiced up EDGE. The news was a topic online, as chatters noticed an increase in data speeds.

Mark Siegel, a spokesman for AT&T, said the company spent $50 million to improve its network, just to get ready for iPhone. That included adding radios atop cell towers and redirecting some to improve EDGE coverage.

The launch of the device prompted AT&T to quickly retire the Cingular Wireless name. AT&T's cellphone operation was, until recently, known as Cingular.

Not all branding changes made it in time for the launch. At AT&T's Northlake Mall site, the old Cingular sign still decorated the facade. A truck-mounted crane arrived in the morning to attach temporary AT&T banners.

Staff writers Megha Rajagopalan, Duane Stanford, George Mathis and The Associated http://www.ajc.com/business/content/business/stories/2007/06/29/0630biziphone.html

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