How to snare the elusive iPhone

Five steps to acquisition for the not-so-casual customer

If you were shooting for "First in Line" honors for the iPhone, you're too late. Several jamokes started a queue in front of Apple's midtown store on Monday, including Mr. First, a guy named Greg Packer, who, of course, is blogging the experience and -- why the heck not -- asking for donations through PayPal to "help make my experience sitting in line more comfortable." I tell you, I'm in the wrong line of work. [You and me both, pal. -- Ed.]

But for the "rest of us" (reference to Apple's slogan of 1984), Friday -- OK, maybe Thursday -- is the limit. In other words, you have plenty of time to organize, prioritize and strategize. Plenty of time to read our small contribution to your condition, our five steps to iPhone acquisition.

1. Settle on your spot

High-traffic store in high-density urban area? Store in the sticks? Tough choice, and you're on your own here, since there's been nothing but rumors about how many iPhones each store will have in stock come 6 p.m. Friday. Either way, you're faced with this formula:  

Number of people in line – Number of iPhones = Number of dissatisfied customers

< p > and betting that you'll be close enough to the front to not be among the difference.

If we were the betting kind, we'd bet on the store-in-the-sticks, but maybe that's just claustrophobia talking.

In any case, you can do a search from the comfort of your chair to choose your spot. To locate brick-and-mortar stores, use the AT&T Find a Store site or the Apple store list for the U.S.

But don't figure on pulling a Rosie Ruiz -- the famous cheater who claimed to have "won" the 1980 Boston Marathon, but actually just jumped out from the crowd near the finish line to sprint to "victory" -- because AT&T and Apple are both wise. AT&T stores will close sometime around 4 or 4:30 p.m. to empty and give the sales staff time to prep. Apple announced yesterday that it's doing the same, although it's booting shoppers at 2 p.m..

Also on that same page of Apple's site, the company warns everyone that "iPhone is available on a first-come, first-served basis." Really?

2. Go on environmental recon

Once you have your spot(s) set, check out the surroundings. If you're familiar with the locale, no problem. If not, or you need a reminder, use one of the online mapping sites/services, such as Google Maps, to sniff out the important factors, including:

  • Caffeinated beverages
  • Bathrooms
  • Food
  • Water, drinking
  • Free Wi-Fi

With almost eight times as many outlets as AT&T and more than 60 times the number of Apple stores, there's a good chance a Starbucks will be close to, if not next door to and also across the street from, where you're waiting. It features the top two on the list, caffeine and bathroom.

For a more thorough, albeit locale-limited, approach to recon, check out Gizmodo's "The Ultimate iPhone Camping Guide," which has mapped and pinned spots around one Apple store in each of the following: New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

Also, consider the inside-out situation. Is the store indoors, such as inside a mall? For the humidity- and/or heat-challenged, that will be a must. (We're talking to you, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Boston, Washington, D.C.) If it's an outie, check the weather forecast for the day(s) you're planning to stand, sit, sweat, or flinch at lightning. breaks down forecasts hour by hour, for instance.

3. Pick your line buddy

There are worse things in the world than waiting in line for a few hours -- such as waiting in line for a few hours next to Alice and Her Performing Kaleidoscope of Unnatural Tattoos. Pick your line buddy carefully, because he or she, or a bunch of hes and shes, are all that stand between you and, well, Alice. Or that guy who thinks Steve Jobs came down from Sinai with an iPhone in one hand and an iPod in the other.

If you can't convince anyone you know to tag along or buy an iPhone too, check out this forum on everythingiPhone, "Official iPhone Camping Plans," where people just like you -- money to burn, time to kill -- discuss living in line for hours, maybe days. There may be a match made in heaven just waiting for you.

4. Pay someone to feel your pain

Not surprisingly, entrepreneurial types -- or maybe just the terminally unemployable -- have offered their services as line waiters for the iPhone. (Or maybe they were just the natural response to advertisements that lazy-but-money-flush people have run lately looking for a stand-in for the standing.) The San Francisco area's Craigslist was the first place we saw standing-for-profit ads, with prices ranging from $150 to $250 on Monday, but by Tuesday the upper end had climbed to $300. The payee swaps for the stand-in at the magic hour approaches, of course. In other cities, prices were lower. Seattle, for instance, topped out at $120. Maybe it's the nicer weather this time of year.

Bonus tip: At least two of the Bay area's Craigslist ads state "professional [line] waiter," which is the first time we'd heard that phrase applied outside the food service industry. Unfortunately, neither ad included a resume or references.

5. Don't stand in line, go on

Apple's online store will be selling the iPhone on Friday, too, so rather than brave the crowds or pay some schmo, you can kick back and click. You won't get the phone on Friday -- no pre-orders allowed on the iPhone -- or even Saturday or Sunday, but you'll get one eventually. The caveat, of course is that although Apple has committed to selling online, and simplified the activation process via iTunes so there's no reason to shift your rump, it's provided no clues about how much stock it will carry or more importantly, how long the ship-to wait time will be. (The iPhone prices, however, remain the same, and include free shipping.)

This can be your fallback in case, after cruising your designated spot on Friday, you discover the line looks like it's 1975 and Peter Frampton just blew into town. No problem. Head home, and wait in virtual line, finger poised over the mouse.

However, it's not clear exactly when Apple's online Store will start selling. The Apple site says 6:00, but what time zone? It won't hurt to check in at the site at 6 p.m. EDT, which is 5:00 Central and 3:00 Pacific. (Mountain, like always, you're on your own.) In any case, prior to the deadline, you'll see the traditional Post-It bearing the message "We're busy updating the store..." that indicates Apple is reconfiguring the site. Keep refreshing.

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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