About half past midnight I left my house to head to the Apple store on Stockton Street in San Francisco. I had on multiple layers of clothing and my motorcycle leather jacket, stocking cap, gloves and a back-pack filled with more layers and even a towel. I was as prepared for sleeping on a sidewalk as I figured I would need to be. I’ve been known to be able to sleep anywhere, so I figured I didn’t need any fancy tarps, tents, blankets or other creature comforts I was sure would be on display in the line.
When I got to the Apple Store there were about thirty people already in line. I had heard that the first person started out Wednesday evening. It was a fairly quiet group of mostly geeks and artists (inclusive of Apple developers). The ratio of boys to girls was unfortunately very high (come on girls get into tech!). I walked to the last place and just stood there. I had no idea what to do now that I was actually in line. Now, many people are thinking, “this guy is nuts waiting in line outside in a city to buy a phone.” I even wondered to myself if I was maybe crossing some imaginary line between the already obsessed Apple enthusiasts and well, part of the cult of Apple. I figured it was going to be a great adventure to say the least, a first person experience of where society comes together for a single moment to celebrate innovation. To be honest, the first hour was pretty boring.
I think I was expecting some kind of secret hand shake to be passed down to me. Wasn’t I now part of a new tribe? I sat down and took a nap. I couldn’t sleep long though, there seemed to be a buzz building. There was no reason. Nothing had changed and only a few more people had joined the line behind me. It was now around 2am. There was a difference though. We had all been waiting there bored. Then it occurred to people that we were all a part of something bigger than ourselves or the individuals we may be standing in line with. Then, the mix. A guy came over with his laptop asking for a MG. He pinged a few of us in line, but none of us was who he was looking for. By the way I saw him glancing back at his computer, I assumed he had made a connection with someone in line, online. He had. A couple people up from me was MG. The two connected live and a whole group began to mix into conversation. The line was starting to interact. I’m sure the folks at the front had their moments already, but the tail was starting to wag. We were now a group. Occasionally, someone would need to run to the bathroom or grab coffee from the 24-hour Starbucks. When they went to go, they’d just turn to their neighbor and ask, “will you watch my stuff?” It was an instant nod and the bond of trust amongst the line increased. There were laptops, cell phones, music players, back-packs, blankets, tents, and even a dog. Everything was safe. Everyone was together.
I happened to be one person away from the guy “holding a place” for an editor from PC Magazine (he was paid $250) and one behind MG from VentureBeat. By 4am the line was now to the end of the block and creeping around the corner. A few folks kept joining the tribe every twenty minutes or so. At one point an SUV pulled up and a whole group got out, set up a giant tent and then went and parked the car. Amongst all the tech, the greatest was seeing the basics of passing time still included, such as reading a book and playing cards. The news crews starting showing up in the early morning, still before sunrise. They’d walk up and down the line interviewing the “die hards”. Application developers were also there pitching their new applications on handbills or demoing them in some instances (Pandora cofounder was walking the line I believe – Pandora is awesome). The excitement kept growing. By 5am no one was even trying to sleep. We were all anxiously awaiting 8am. We were now a part of something. As the sun began to rise, more and more people showed up. We broke a hundred before dawn, but by the time it was day light the line stretched around the block, thicker, stronger and buzzing.
8:00:00 AM Pacific Standard Time
Security was at the doors, even the police had arrived. Everyone was up on their feet, stuff picked up, and all moved forward about twenty feet. We bunched up. We had been waiting for this moment. We all watched the clock intensely for about twenty five minutes prior. There were film crews from the news stations and photographers everywhere. The doors were opened and thirty people were invited in. First it was about a half of a dozen quickly allowed in, then as we all blinked and wondered if we had really seen anyone enter, the rest of the first group were allowed through the giant glass doors. It had begun. As I was 34th in line I was now at the front of the door lined up to be in the second group (we had all heard they were letting in 30 at a time as folks were still online with their laptops and iPhones reading about what the other experiences were from the East Coast onward. Nothing happened for a while. We could see the first group in line up the stairs. No one came out. We all calmed ourselves by reminding everyone that it was going to take about 15 minutes to get one person through the process. It was 8:06. It felt like it was 9. Finally, the guy that was first in line, came busting out the door all fired up. He was upset because nothing was working and he still didn’t have an iPhone. He had been apparently told that he had to move his tent or the police were going to confiscate it, so he was allowed to come back outside. As he did he was mobbed by the media and went off on a tyrant. He was really peeved. The media ate it up. I was surrounded by cameras, journalists and #1. We just wanted our iPhone 3G. The guy next to me had an original iPhone with a bit of juice left. He said the stock was starting to really slip. I knew it was bad. We heard the servers had crashed and that everything had come to a grinding halt. I knew what happened. Too many transactions all happening at once on systems that weren’t ready for this volume. I’d been in that situation before. I was very happy to not be in the call center fighting this time, but was hopeful that the IT folks would figure out a solution quick. After a while, the first iPhone activated walked out the door. He wasn’t first in line, but his worked first. Slowly a few would come out at a time and eventually, the second group was allowed in the door.
When I walked into the Apple store my group was greeted by tons of Apple employees in blue and orange t-shirts clapping and cheering as we ascended the stairs to the second floor. We felt like heros. It was amazing. All smiles….until you got to someone with mobile terminal to ring you up. It seemed like everyone was having problems. My experience was miserable. When it was my turn I debated quickly, “white, black, white, black, white, black, … which one do I want”. I choose black. As the employee started the transaction, it quickly failed. She couldn’t get me setup. Nothing worked. She wasn’t sure why either. I had heard from some others before me that there were problems with people that had corporate discounts, not corporate accounts mind you, but just discounted person accounts. As it turns out, Apple and AT&T didn’t setup Apples point of sale system to handle customers that had a corporate discount. What?! That has to be most customers out there! I was distressed to say the least. I was tired, dirty and felt like a two year old having all their toys suddenly destroyed. I was really upset. I slept over night for this. I was a part of this. I was a part of the group. I couldn’t walk out without an iPhone 3G. Multiple people tried to help. Everyone said it was impossible and that only AT&T could do my transaction. I refused to believe it. I was so upset. But, I knowing how these systems worked, I knew that if they didn’t build it to support that transaction, there wasn’t anything I could do. The only option they offered was to get a new phone number (I was an existing AT&T customer). That wasn’t an option.
I left the store, head bowed, and quickly passed the media before I could get grabbed. About twenty paces toward home I remembered that the AT&T store was just a couple blocks away. “Maybe there aren’t many people in line there,” I thought to myself. I began heading toward their store. When I got there, there was of course a long line that had gone down the block and was three or four wide. And, right as I got there, I heard them say they were running out of phones (it was about 9:30am). I decided I’d try to pull the sympathy card and grabbed one of the guys outside that was helping to manage the line. I explained my story and told him that Apple had sent me over here. He was confused and pretty sure they should have been able to activate me. He took my number and went into the store. I waited about five or ten minutes before he came back out. He said everything with my account was fine and that I was eligible for the upgrade. He also was now very confident that Apple could do the transaction and had discussed this with the store manager. Unfortunately, the store manage made the decision that he or she couldn’t let me get one there as I wasn’t part of their line. The guy asked if I thought I could get back into the Apple store. I said yes and asked if he’d give me his phone number to have someone from Apple call when they got stuck with the transaction. He did and I ran off back to the Apple store.
I got into the store after explaining my story and the lady managing the door connected me with one of the managers in the store. I believe his name was Dilon. This guy was amazing. He told me very candidly that he was sure they couldn’t do the transaction, but since I had this AT&T guys number he’d let me into the store and we’d try anyway. I wasn’t sure who to believe at this point, but wanted to try again. Dilon called Cliff from the AT&T store (on a new iPhone 3G – white). They talked for a bit and then came to the conclusion that Apple in fact could not handle my account. But, while talking, one of them had the idea to dump my corporate discount and then try to do it. (Dilon had already tried to inspire Cliff to pull one aside for me at the AT&T store, but that didn’t work). I nodded my head yes in agreement that I was fine having them take off the discount. I figured if it can come off, it can go back on later. Dilon put me on with Cliff as he worked to remove my corporate discount and I got to talk on a live, new, white iPhone 3G. My AT&T account was quickly updated and the first girl that tried to ring me up saw I was back in the store. I caught her up on the story and she went and grabbed someone with a point of sale device so that I could try it. (Apple folks were amazing – patient, empathetic, sincere, passionate) At this point I had a few Apple employees standing around me hoping it would go through. Everyone wanted it to work. We went through the steps…it prompted for me to pick a SMS package…it worked! High fives all around. I was so excited. I was the brand new owner of a WHITE (changed my mind after seeing Dilon’s) iPhone 3G. Of course it wasn’t activated. It was about 10:03am (asked the time) and I still had to “activate” the phone. This process was also supposedly taking a long time. The Apple store was sending most people home to do it, but had lined up all the laptops downstairs to activate phones for those that wanted to hang around and try. Dilon wanted me to try as he wanted to personally ensure that my phone was working. I was game for it too! We went downstairs and he connected me with one of the groups of employees helping people activate. Basically this was the process of connecting the iPhone to a computer with iTunes up and running, waiting for it to time out, unplugging it and then plugging it back in. I did this many times for almost an hour and finally was going to give up. On the last attempt, as I was asking what to expect when I got home so I was prepared, I pulled off the plug and it suddenly activated. SMS messages started coming through and I was live! This was exciting. I thanked everyone for helping me out and now walked out of the store, head held high, bag in hand and a big smile across my face. I felt famous. I was an iPhone owner. As I left the store a guy from CNET was there on his laptop keeping a live blog of what was happening. I briefly told him my story and how awesome the Apple employees were and took off. It was 10:48am.
My iPhone 3G review.