Camping out for the iPhone

Waiting in line for a consumer electronics device is a miserable, pointless exercise. But still, let's discuss strategies!

Published June 28, 2007 5:12PM (EDT)

I don't camp. I don't like the cold, I don't like the bugs, I don't like the deprivation, and the outdoors mostly frightens me. Other than a week in the woods in the sixth grade -- we slept in cabins -- the closest I usually get to camp is a stroll through San Francisco's Castro neighborhood on Halloween.

But I've got to get this phone. Apple's iPhone is, for me, mainly a professional obligation -- I won't lie to you, I do want it so, but were I not looking to test it out as part of my job, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't wait in a line for it. This is going to sound maybe a little offensive, but I've always regarded folks who line up for movies or video-game consoles or Christmas toys as the worst sort of losers. I'm generally tolerant of object lust -- I write about gadgets, after all -- but to willingly deprive yourself of shelter, food, access to clean bathrooms and other comforts suggests an obsessive and soulless devotion to commerce and materiality; it's desperate and indulgent and completely unbecoming, and it makes people want to tell you to get a life.

Lining up is also often plainly illogical, because few items these days are in truly limited supply. Craigslist and eBay abound with Wiis and PlayStation 3s, and if you'd rather not pay an inflated price -- which, of course, you're doing anyway by waiting in line (unless you plan to flip the phone on eBay) -- you can also just wait for new supplies to come in later. With the iPhone, that is actually the most sensible strategy. The iPhone is not a last-ever reunion rock concert by a much-loved band -- it's exactly the opposite, something completely new about which you know almost nothing, a band you've never heard play, a band that may even suck.

Apple may sell out of its stock this weekend, but there will be more iPhones soon, and they'll be better in nearly every way than the model that goes on sale Friday. (For instance, the first iPhone uses the slow EDGE networking specification -- makes you "ache for a dial-up" modem, says the New York Times' iPhone reviewer David Pogue -- and it is not upgradeable to the faster 3G system that will be built into future iPhones.) So why line up now?

But it doesn't matter anymore what's sensible; hysteria has taken over, and people are already lining up, and I will have to line up with them. The iPhone goes on sale tomorrow evening, but a few jokers have been outside the Apple Store in Manhattan since Tuesday, and on Wednesday San Francisco Bay Area news stations ran reports on lines forming all over my fair digital hub. My decision is no longer about whether to join the line -- it's about where and when.

I've put much thought into this, and I'm down to a couple of options. The first is the Apple Store at the Stonestown Galleria, a shopping mall in the suburban, southern section of San Francisco. The Stonestown Apple Store is smaller than Apple's flagship midcity location, but it has one clear advantage -- it's in a mall rather than on the street. The mall! Lining up in a mall is not at all like camping; there's a food court, bathrooms, maybe even wi-fi access from the Apple Store. Moreover, there's no overnight camping at the mall; an employee there told me he expects folks to start lining up early Friday morning.

The only problem with this option is that it runs against Steve Jobs' advice for how to get an iPhone. "Don't go to an Apple Store," the Apple chief told Arianna Huffington last month. "It will be a madhouse there. People will be lined up around the block, sleeping on the sidewalk to get one. Go to an AT&T/Cingular store." AT&T has put up an iPhone store finder on its site; the app says there are seven AT&T stores selling the iPhone within five miles of my house.

The hitch, though, is that few of these are indoors. And I worry that the AT&T stores might get fewer iPhones -- there's a rumor online that each Apple Store will get 500 iPhones, and that each AT&T store will get far fewer. And there's no way of knowing how many units each store will get, so picking is something of a crapshoot.

So that's my decision: the Stonestown Apple or an AT&T store? Isn't this terribly fascinating? But I think we can make this fun. I've drawn up a public Google Map pointing out where I plan to line up. If you're joining the iLine too, press the comment button below and post where you plan to wait, and what time you plan to join the line (also add your name, or something other than "anon"). Pass this post around to all your iPhone-fanatic friends, too. For each entry, I'll add a place mark, creating a map of nationwide iPhone frenzy.

Also, feel free to add any line-waiting strategies (and if you're in San Francisco, let me know if you'd like to join my iLine posse!). What are some absolute essentials to take along with you in line? Is there a line-waiting etiquette? Is line waiting more fun than I might imagine? I doubt it, but please, line-waiting veterans, do dish.

Here's a link to my iPhone line-waiting map.

Another good resource: The Gizmodo/Gridskipper iPhone camping guide.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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