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I had my first chance to visit the Apple booth Wednesday afternoon. Intermixed with the displays of last year’s offerings (iWork’06 and iLife’06, to name two), there were also a good number of Apple TV units. But where, oh where, was the iPhone ? I was really expecting to find 50 to 100 of the things, lined up for passersby to play with the user interface, check out the widgets, and try the e-mail. It was quickly apparent, however, that there was no such collection.

Instead, there are just two iPhones for the entire 20,000 square foot Apple booth—one on each side of the entrance to the booth. However, these two phones aren’t accessible—the phones are in display in a circular glass case, situated on a slowly-rotating pedestal. There won’t be any touching these phones, nor playing with its interface. Instead, it’s more like visiting a museum: “Ah look honey, there’s an iPhone, circa 2007. They used to roam freely in large packs in North America, from what I understand.”

Situated around each display case are a number of Apple employees, carefully keeping an eye on things. I asked a couple of questions of one (about third-party widgets and users installing their own widgets—neither response was what I would call encouraging). Then the most surreal moment of the entire show occurred…

I moved in a bit to get a closer look at the demo running on the screen. As I leaned forward, I heard this firm (but very polite) voice beside me: “Sir, if you would please just step back a bit from the display case, thank you.” Whoops. Apparently that last step forward I took had violated the iPhone’s invisible Cone of Protection—it seems the cone extends out from the display case to a distance of a foot or two. I was half tempted to remain in place, to see what the iPhone protectors’ next course of action might have been—but then decided that explaining to my wife why I needed bail money in California wouldn’t be a pleasant conversation.

Now, in all seriousness, I know why they’re being protective—the display cases, as you can see in the picture, are tall and slender. Given the nature of trade show floors (cement), it’s also highly likely that the case isn’t secured by anything more than its base. So knocking one over is eminently possible, hence the need for the Cone of Protection—after all, if one of the display cases were to take a tumble, the population of iPhones on the show floor would be cut in half! Still, it sort of made me feel like I was on Cops . “Put the camera down, and slowly step away from the case. Please let me see your hands at all times, and move… away… from… that… case!”

Tomorrow, I guess I’ll use the telephoto lens to get a close-up look at the iPhone’s screen!

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