iDay almost here

Nothing to do now but sit back and watch

After five months, 20 days and some odd hours of increasingly surreal hype, tomorrow's coming-out party for Apple Inc.'s iPhone will be anticlimactic. It has to be. The hunt for clues will be over, all the guessing will be over and done, and all that will remain will be hard reality. Sink or swim? Home run or foul tip? Best damn piece of consumer electronics gear ever or just another phone?

It has been a long, strange trip -- to paraphrase a band whose music has played in the background during at least one MacWorld. This launch will undoubtedly be rehashed in college marketing classrooms and will certainly add to the story arc of Apple and its CEO, Steve Jobs. Not that Jobs didn't contribute to the narrative himself. When he unveiled the iPhone in January, he called the new device -- a combination cell phone/video iPod/Internet device -- "revolutionary."

"Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything," he said from a stage at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.

Apple likes the "R" word. The seminal book on the creation of the Mac, Andy Hertzfeld's Revolution in the Valley: The Insanely Great Story of How the Mac Was Made (O'Reilly Media Inc., 2004), uses it. So does the copy that touts the current Mac OS X 10.4, a.k.a. Tiger. "Start a Revolution on Your Desktop," reads the subhead. "Mac OS X Tiger will change the way you use a computer," runs the text. Jobs even dropped the word in an e-mail yesterday to Apple employees, according to Engadget. "We're launching the most revolutionary and exciting product in Apple's history this Friday. And given Apple's legacy of breakthrough products, that's saying a lot," he said.

This revolution, though, was preannounced. Jobs held up the iPhone months before it was to release and spelled out the details, a dramatic departure for the usually secretive Apple. But like most revolutions, this one had its victories and defeats, skirmishes and full-out battles.

Network hardware maker Cisco filed a lawsuit within days of the iPhone's debut, claiming that it owned the trademark. Six weeks later, the two companies made peace and said they'd share the name. Apple's stock took a 2.2% dive in mid-May because one blog rumored that the iPhone was to be delayed four months. Scads of analysts and pundits and bloggers and reporters wrote words and words and more words about a product none had ever touched, put both zealotry and cynicism into play, and praised or criticized everything from AT&T Inc.'s slow EDGE data network to the lack of a physical keyboard.

In the near vacuum of information, naturally gossip won out. Apple did little to stop, even slow, its breeding, parceling out details barely at all through May, and come June, only in dribs and drabs. The tactic was brilliant: By yesterday, said online metrics supplier Hitwise Pty., Internet searches for "iPhone" had surged a stunning 583% in the previous four weeks. And Apple's iPhone page was the No. 1 site by number of visitors in Hitwise's computer/Internet/electronics category for three weeks running.

In quick succession, Apple broke out a television ad campaign -- previously, it had run only a clever teaser on the Academy Awards show in February -- set the June 29 launch date, quashed the idea that developers could create on-device applications and released a Windows version of its Safari browser, presumably so Windows developers could see what their Web 2.0 applications would look like on the iPhone.

The pace picked up June 18, when Apple began revealing iPhone tidbits almost daily. The battery would last a lot longer than originally estimated, said Apple, without explaining why; the phone would stream YouTube content, though for other videos, users would have to do with Flash; new subscriber plans with unlimited data would cost $60 minimum, 25% less than most analysts had predicted; and iTunes would be locked to iPhone from the start, since the former was needed to activate the latter.

Questions still lingered -- among the most popular was whether users could stick their own SIM (subscriber identity module) cards in the iPhone -- and Apple slowly answered many. (No on the SIM card, Apple's FAQ seems to conclude.) And yesterday, to close the deal, it let the only four publications seeded with evaluation units to publish the first reviews. The consensus: not insanely great, but darn impressive.

Not all has gone Jobs' way, of course. Some security researchers have dubbed the iPhone a "nightmare" for corporate IT, and some enterprise analysts have recommended that companies ban the gizmo or embrace it, or maybe both. AT&T's rival Sprint countered with a "whyPhone" campaign in an attempt to blunt a possible customer exodus.

So the stage is set. According to the rumor mill, Jobs will fire up the troops in a companywide meeting today, some Apple retail workers will sleep in their stores tonight, and armed guards are supposedly accompanying deliveries to stores tomorrow. The queues outside, of course, began forming Monday in New York, naturally, where waiting in line [Hey, pal, we wait on line -- NYC ed.] is part of the drill. Others plan to camp out in front of stores everywhere from Denver to Dallas, Columbus to Kansas City.

"[I want to be part of] something that's going to go down in history," Jessica Rodriguez of the Bronx told the IDG News Service Tuesday when asked why she had joined the line at the Midtown Apple store.

His-tor-ee.

It should be a historical moment, at least for Apple. If the iPhone doesn't fly off the shelves or there's major grumbling from users -- who are notoriously less diplomatic about product flaws than reviewers -- the debacle could push Edsel and New Coke into the mistake shadows. Or, if the iPhone starts big and swells even bigger, it could drop Apple's original mission, to make PCs into the "hobby" category Jobs and make the company the American version of Sony, when "Sony" was synonymous with consumer electronics. So the question that has to keep the Apple collective up tonight is clearly, "What if they gave a revolution and no one came?"

But no matter which way Apple and the iPhone tip, all of that won't be nearly as much fun for the Apple faithful, for those who spurn its products or for anyone else who tracks technology as the past five months, 20 days and some odd hours have been. What remains will be numbers.

Let the anticlimax begin.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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