iPhone 3G S line: Scenes from a mall

Here’s what 3G S Day looks, sounds and smells like in the Inland Empire of Southern California. At 6:00 a.m., when you roll into Victoria Gardens in Rancho Cucamonga—it’s a newish mall, but the owners prefer the term “lifestyle center”—you mostly see trucks making deliveries. The dying morning breeze carries with it the faint hint of cattle, which graze 20 miles away in Chino and Mira Loma. Driving past the AT&T store on the southwest end of the mall, you might notice a dozen people sitting outside, along with a bored security guard keeping half an eye on the sleepy crowd.

What in the world are those people doing there? The action was on South Main Street, where a cheerfully subdued throng of 300 or so enthusiasts gathered outside the Apple Store. There you would have found hip-hop tech mavens, tattooed housewives, retired hipsters, a uniformed Riverside County firefighter, and untold numbers of college students of every ethnicity and hue, all waiting patiently under the cool morning haze for their turn to buy a freshly minted iPhone 3G S.

“Where’s the party?” I heard one twentysomething ask of nobody in particular. The music didn’t start until 7:00 a.m., when the dulcet tones of Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin and Ella Fitzgerald began pumping through the mall’s PA system. Until then, the guests had to be content with the low buzz of under-caffeinated conversation punctuated by the occasional shouts from the Apple Store manager, making sure everyone was in the proper line.

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For customers who had pre-ordered their new phones online or at the store weeks in advance, 3G S Day arrived about 90 minutes before the official opening time of 7:00 a.m. The store began letting in customers—many of whom no doubt had long commutes ahead from the Inland Empire to Orange or L.A. counties—as early as 5:30 a.m.

The signs at the Apple Store left little doubt what the star attraction was on Friday morning.

Most discovered that pre-registration only guaranteed a phone, not expedited service. Like so many other Apple Store locations around the country, the line for customers who had pre-ordered was longer than the one for customers who took their chances at simply showing up. One gentleman, who arrived at 7:45 a.m. and left before I could ask him his name, was flabbergasted at the size of the line.

“Did you make a reservation?” I asked.

“Yeah, so it’s no big deal,” he replied.

“I heard the manager say the wait is about an hour,” I told him. “So if you have to be at work…”

“Oh, no, I’m on vacation,” he said. “But I gotta go. I’ve got (a date) lined up.” He smiled, slapped me on my shoulder, and took off.

And, no, he didn’t actually say “a date.”

Many of those folks who arrived late and stuck around were chagrined to learn that the phone they wanted—the $199 16GB model—had sold out before the store even opened. All white 16GB models were gone by 6:20 a.m. By the time 7 a.m. rolled around and the store let in customers who didn’t reserve a phone in advance, all of the black 16GB phones were gone, too.

Joe Alarcon, 31, didn’t pre-order his phone. So he made sure to arrive early enough from nearby Fontana to ensure he would get his white 32GB iPhone 3G S. He was first in line for walk-ins, arriving at 4:30 a.m. to win the coveted spot. Not bad, considering some customers in New York and San Francisco queued up yesterday afternoon for primo placement.

Alarcon, who mentioned that his favorite app is Shazam, said he was excited about the 3G S’s increased speed and video capabilities. “It’s cool that you can edit video on the phone,” he said.

Alarcon ended up replacing his 16GB 3G phone with a new 32GB 3G S, but he almost didn’t make it to the store Friday. “I wasn’t eligible to upgrade until August,” he explained. He was pleasantly surprised when AT&T announced that some existing customers wouldn’t be penalized for upgrading early.

Caleb Burton, 33, and Mitch Bethurum, 37, drove from Redlands to get their phones, which they had sensibly reserved in advance. Both men said they were dropping their Verizon plans in order to make the jump to the iPhone. In Bethurum’s case, the switch to a black 32GB iPhone 3GS would mean a substantial hike in his monthly cell phone bill. “I only pay $49 right now,” he said. But he wasn’t bothered by the new phone’s $300 price tag.

“I’ve been holding on to a $100 gift card since Christmas,” he said.

Dori Graham and her 17-year-old daughter, Joscelyn, were also abandoning Verizon Wireless for AT&T. Joscelyn, who just graduated from high school in Alta Loma, says she really wants the phone to help manage her schedule when she begins attending classes at Mt. San Antonio College in the fall. “I want to be able to get on the Internet from anywhere,” she told me. “And I really need the calendar, so MobileMe will be a big help, I think.”

As is always the case at an Apple release event, there was no shortage of ardent fans. (I hesitate to apply the term fanatic or cultist because they’re all so nice and fun to talk to.) Jim Applewhite II, 23, and his friend Jia Clark, 26, came in from San Bernardino. Applewhite described himself as a “big Apple fan.”

“I’ve got everything,” the Chaffey College business student said.

Applewhite, who was tooling around with a MacBook Pro, extolled the “whole lifestyle… the easiness” associated with his Apple gear. “I had a Blackberry for awhile,” he said. “It was too much work.”

Although Applewhite was excited about getting a black 32GB phone, and especially the new video camera, he felt like something was missing. “I really wanted video chat,” he said. “If Apple ever does that, they’ll be on top of the world in competing in this market.”

He also questioned some of the new phone’s features. “A compass? Who needs that?”

“Well,” interjected Clark, “you’re not really outdoorsy.”

“I know,” Applewhite replied. “But who is? Are Apple customers? I don’t know…”

A healthy-sized crowd turned up at Rancho Cucamonga’s Victoria Gardens Apple Store for the iPhone 3G S release.

Well, Ann Marie Brown thinks the compass is just dandy, thanks. She drove 25 miles from Claremont to get her new iPhone, which would be her third. Brown is the only person I’ve met in my 15 years in journalism who actually shook my hand when I identified myself as a writer. (I think the publication probably had something to do with it.) Brown was also one of several customers, like Applewhite, whom Apple Store staffers greeted personally. “They know me here,” she told me as an employee escorted her inside.

Brown spoke with the zeal of a convert, which, as it happens, she is.

“I was a Windows person until about three years ago,” Brown explained. In that time, she’s bought an iMac, a MacBook Pro, a Time Capsule, iPhones, the works. She even wants to learn how to code. “I want to be able to do more with the Terminal,” she said. Brown also reported how she managed to convert her avowedly “technophobic” husband from a “plain-Jane Nokia” to an iPhone. I don’t know if I’m spoiling any surprises here, but Brown said she was planning to give her old iPhone to her daughter.

Anyone looking for signs of an economic recovery in Rancho Cucamonga crowd would have come away with mixed feelings. It’s certainly encouraging to see hundreds of people lining up at dawn to pay $300 for a sweet new smartphone, especially in a part of Southern California hardest hit by the housing market collapse and with regional unemployment hovering around 12 percent.

But hundreds on this Friday couldn’t compare with the thousands who showed up last July, when many customers waited eight hours or more in the heat for a 3G phone. It’s also worth noting that Apple sold more than 1 million units last year over three days; this time around, analysts estimate the figure will be around 500,000 iPhones sold this weekend.

By 8:00 a.m, the Cucamonga air was getting warmer, the crowds were only a little thinner, and hundreds of people were playing with their new $300 compasses.

[Ben Boychuk is a freelance writer and columnist in Rialto, Calif. Feel free to e-mail him.]

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