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I phone, you phone, we all phone for iPhone Add to ...

Three hundred clerks were clapping when the lads finally stepped into the store.

At precisely 6:02 p.m. yesterday, after the doors of the shining Apple store at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street in New York opened, Geoffrey Arnold and Scott Conley were in. The two software engineers from Brooklyn were Nos. 11 and 12 in line to buy the first iPhones sold in the United States. They'd been living on the sidewalk since Wednesday.

There were 1,000 people packed outside on the street by then, at least 50 TV cameras, cops shouting, helicopters overhead. For a cellphone. Inside, the clerks were clapping and shouting.

"This is incredible," Geoffrey shouted, and it was: like being a great athlete in an arena, like being Caesar, lauded and honoured: hail to the early adopter! The line was guided straight down the Plexiglas stairs, across the store, straight to a cashier. No one had to wait.

"Two," Geoffrey said, as Scott was saying the same thing on the other side of the packed and vibrating room. "Eight gigs."

Bang. $1,298.33 (U.S.). He signed. He picked up two small black boxes, each the size of a pound of butter. Two hallowed iPhones. The clerks were still clapping and cheering. "That's really ... cool that they did that," Geoff said, in some kind of shock.

And then they were out. It was over in 10 minutes.

Now the crowd went wild: pictures, congratulations, applause. People wanted to touch the boxes. They were heroes. "Get it out, get it out," A professional photographer shouted. "Take it out of the box! Right here!"

Vince Nguyen, their pal, No. 8 in line, had already done that. His hands were shaking so much his wife looked worried. "Wow," Vince said. "Wow. I unboxed it in front of America! Wow!"

"Can I look at it?" someone asked. Vince held it out, but he couldn't let it go.

Then the boys sat down and tried to get it to work.

gone in a new york minute

The frenzy had begun to peak at noon.

That was when two door-shaped security men asked the 300 people waiting to buy an iPhone to fold up their camp chairs and loungers and mattresses and inflatable love seats. They had to pack in closer. The line ran half a block down Fifth, around the corner of 58th to Madison, up Madison to 59th. Young people, mostly. The ratio of men to women was roughly eight to one.

There were still six hours left to the moment of rapture, when the iPhone, the most anticipated new device in the history of technology, went on sale.

High-school students roamed the sidewalk, trying to sell their places in line.

"Spot?"

"What number in line?"

"24."

"How much?"

"300."

As everyone waited, the same conversation recurred again and again: Why were they so crazy for an iPhone, a device they hadn't even seen? It was as if a crowd of philosophers had decided to hold a sit-in on the subject of technology and society.

Vince Nguyen, the professional blogger from Scottsdale, Ariz., loved the technology. "The intelligence is so smart, it predicts what you're trying to say, and corrects it. If you want to type 'mother,' and type 'muther' instead, it corrects it."

"Do you think the iPhone's like a mother?" someone said. "You know, something that takes care of all your needs, comfort, pleasure ..."

"It's more like having a dream wife. Everything you want in a wife. Except it's also a great mobile device." It wasn't clear if that made it better, or worse.

QUEST FOR THE HOLY iGRAIL

Geoffrey and Scott were at spots 11 and 12. They wanted the iPhone, as Scott said, because "it's the ultimate convergence device." No wonder: between them, they had two cellphones, two laptops, two BlackBerrys, two iPods and a 1,000-watt gas generator to power it all, plus an extra tank of gas.

It was the ancient longing for the one thing that will do it all. The Holy Grail and the peace that passeth all understanding come to mind.

Plus they wanted to see one, see the real thing. No one had. Steve Hodges, the regional president of AT&T, Apple's iPhone partner, strolled by, checking his stores. For six months since the unveiling of the prototype, he said, A&T's testers had been checking the phone's workability all over New York. But "they put it in a sock and used a Bluetooth earpiece," he said.

"It's hard to keep 300,000 people quiet," Mr. Hodges said, "What you do is you don't tell anyone everything." Even he didn't know, for instance, which shipping company had delivered phones to his stores in Manhattan.

Others thought the iPhone frenzy was political.

Back at spot 123, on Madison, Joshua Topolsky likened the iPhone to a Volkswagen. "Apple goes against the status quo. It's kind of a watered-down revolution. I think Apple products seem revolutionary not because it's well-deserved, but because it's not PC. Not one of those."

But it was more than that, too. "I think the iPhone has transcended technology and become a philosophical device." He was a brainy guy: In his bag he had Lolita and a copy of US Weekly.

Of all the iPhone's fetching features -- its one-machine-does-all genius, its desktop quality browser, its music and video players -- the one everyone talked about was the touch screen. The iPhone has no buttons: you stroke it the way you'd stroke a face. Merleau-Ponty would have loved it.

"Touch is very hot right now," Mr. Topolsky said. Microsoft has plans for something called The Surface, a thin horizontal monitor that lets the user move files or pictures around with his or her hands, as if it were a physical desk.

It isn't just that the iPhone embodied technology, but that it let everyone become more physical with technology, so it felt more human.

"It creates the illusion of looking into it rather than at it, as if you were peering into the depths of a clear electronic pond," The New York Times had written that very morning in an editorial -- an editorial! In the Times! About the iPhone! And because that pond contained everything from professional details to the touchstones of your emotional life, the iPhone felt like the technical manifestation of a soul.

Or maybe it was just a big status symbol.

"This is the financial capital of the world," Robert Williams, a 28-year-old financial adviser from Crown Heights said. "Go-getters are here. If you're on the phone, you're making money.

"And you know what else?" Mr. Williams said. "This is New York. Someone's gonna pull it out on the subway tonight, and someone's gonna have the status of having stolen the first iPhone."

A broker by the name of Kurtis was watching them. "Brilliant on the part of Steve Jobs to do all this Friday afternoon," he said. "Everyone having to update, take it home. The reviewers say it takes two days to figure it out. By Monday, they'll love them. Just in time for the stock market to open."

ibrown@globeandmail.com

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