Friday, June 29, 2007

Lessons Learned in the iPhone Line

Just returned from Third Street Promenade, where I waited for six hours to get an iPhone.

Well, I'm not personally buying an iPhone. It's a bit expensive for me, and I rarely go anywhere or do anything that would allow for portable Internet time. I bought my Video iPod months ago and tonight was one of my first chances to actually get some use out of it, and it still sat in my pocket for most of the night.

No, I was waiting on behalf of The phones don't actually go on sale until tomorrow afternoon at 6 p.m., so a bunch of us are working the line in shifts, three at a time.

It was interesting - a chance to experience what may turn out to be a significant cultural moment, but without all the massive downsides to waiting in a 28-hour line. (Like the not getting any sleep thing, the massive boredom thing and the sitting out on a public street like a goober for 28 hours thing).

Hanging out there on Third Street for six hours on a Thursday in a line outside of the Apple Store...I learned some things. And here they are:

- Some of the amateur musical acts that play on Third Street are surprisingly okay. Most are not.

- The Helio Ocean has GPS. The Apple iPhone does not.

- Camping chairs are far more comfortable and easy on the ass than regular folding chairs.

- Santa Monica has a tremendous amount of really beautiful women and the vast majority of them will studiously avoid making contact with yours truly.

- The Helio Ocean has a convenient keypad, useful for text messaging. The iPhone does not.

- In Los Angeles, brief lines, say for films or bathrooms, tend to be quite hostile. I've been at local bars where guys will shove you aside to get to the urinal first. But long queues, say for iPhones, tend to be extremely communal and friendly. No one said anything about people getting up, moving around, leaving their seats, inviting friends into the line or switching off turns with friends. People were making jokes and sharing observations with one another. An egregiously nerdy weirdo in a stupid green hat whose ability to raise the iPhone's asking price was in serious doubt shared a spontaneous hoedown with some young ladies to the strains of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." Fostering this kind of convivial atmosphere in a long-term line makes sense, as you'll have to be around your neighbors for a while and you might as well get along and enjoy your time together, but it's interesting to see a crowd of strangers spontaneously behave in such a logical fashion.

- No question gets irritating faster than "What are you guys waiting in line for?" My technique to avoid getting extremely annoyed and rude is always to make up the most elaborate falsehood I could think of, and then stick to it religioiusly. "David Hasselhoff is going to be here signing albums in an hour!" "They're giving away free dialysis treatments!" "We're waiting for the bus to Burning Man!" My dream, the ultimate, would be for my victim to go around the next day and share this misinformation with friends, family and co-workers. "I was at Third Street last night? And this whole line of people? There were waiting to see David Hasselhoff sign albums. Ya rly!"

This is just an incredibly stupid question, regardless of how frequently it's asked. We're all in a line late at night in front of a computer store...If you know anything about computers or the tech industry, that alone should be enough for you to figure out what's going on. What could we be waiting for outside of an Apple Store? A free round of delicious apple martinis? Autographed photos of Apple Paltrow Martin? If the Apple Store line isn't enough evidence for you to piece together a theory, you don't know anything about computers or the tech why do you care what we're waiting for? It's clearly not going to affect you. What were they hoping we'd say? "One random person in this line is going to receive $10 million! Come on in, there's still room!"

- People love to feel superior to others, even if it's only for NOT waiting overnight in a line for a phone, as if that were difficult to do. Line passerby comments ranged from condescending ("Wow, you want an iPhone that badly? Well, more power to you...") to the obnoxious ("You're paying $600 for a phone? Didn't you read the New York Times review?") to the the outright hostile. A guy actually walked by the line and yelled "baaaaaa," implying that we were all soulless sheep-like consumer-bots, I guess. Which is just so easy, to judge someone in this way over something so superficial. "Hey, this person is expending energy on something I personally don't care about...What a loser. Thank God I'm such a super-cool individual, the kind of bold non-conformist who just wanders around malls late at night on a Thursday without buying anything. Man, I'm terrific."

- Jean Baudrillard was totally 100% correct. The iPhone line is a real media event. Earlier in the day, one of my co-workers who had an earlier line shift was interviewed by the CW, and two others were photographed by the Associated Press. All night, people were videotaping and photographing the line from different angles and perspectives, with the Apple Store logo in the background and without, individual faces and large crowd scenes. There's a sense that this is something significant that must be captured for posterity. But the whole thing is also a media creation. The iPhone doesn't exist in reality for anyone but Steve Jobs and Walt Mossberg.

Mossberg and Jobs at the Mahalo launch D: All Things Digital conference

A massive half-year-long saturation campaign has brought the hype over the iPhone to a fever pitch, essentially informing us that this was THE MUST HAVE device of 2007. Maybe of the decade. So we, the public, hearing the message loud and clear, have enacted that favorite ritual of hyped gadgetry, the pre-sale line-up. We're basically just doing what we're told. (In this context, the "baaaa" comment appears not so much off-base as arrogant, adolescent and unnecessarily direct. We're talking about pop culture phenomena here, not the behavior of any single individual, who could have a variety of potential reasons for sitting in an iPhone line. Such as, for example, not purchasing an iPhone but as a favor/assignment for work.)

Then, having heard and acted upon the media message - "Get excited for the iPhone!" - the media then shows up to report on us doing their bidding, but pretending the whole time that it was a spontaneous, unexpected outpouring of iPhone-related enthusiasm. As if the whole purpose of all the magazine covers, newspaper columns, blog posts, keynote speeches, press releases and commercials wasn't to convince people to line up outside of Apple Stores in a frenzied panic to obtain an iPhone.

- The iPhone is going to be enormous. Enthusiasm for it was palpable, for people in and out of the line. Some of the blogs are calling this thing the "Jesusphone" for a reason - it promises the world at your fingertips, a fully integrated experience that combines the best aspects of all of our favorite technologies in a tiny box you can keep with you all day. (Whether this is something the iPhone, nor any object aside from a nimble and well-educated mind, can actually deliver remains to be seen. But this is the promise.)

Just like the iPod, the iPhone simply replicates the experience of using other devices that already exist. Steve Jobs didn't invent the mp3 player, or online music downloads, and he certainly didn't invent phones that can play songs, take pictures and check e-mail. But he's somehow figured out how to package these things in a way that makes intuitive sense to Americans, aesthetically and practically, and gets them excited. E-mail and Google Maps, in 2007, could not be more mundane. It takes a special kind of genius to motivate people from around the country to line up for 28 hours for an overpriced cell phone integrated with these tools, and there's a lot more to it than senseless Consumer Whoredom.


GimmeDaWatch said...

28 Hours? Shit, I'd be bahhhing too.
I know there are gadget geeks out there and everything, but wtf? What does your company want one so badly for, anyway? Me, I'm still holding out for the E-Helmet.

Peter L. Winkler said...

The iPhone looks very slick and elegant, I'll grant that, based only on a few glimpses I've had of it on TV. But it doesn't do anything that a number of all-in-one cell phone/devices already do. The only significant difference is the animated GUI and the use of the entire front surface for a display. The advantages are mostly aesthetic, not functional.

So yes, all the excitement is largely a triumph of very shrewd marketing and the public's susceptibility to these whipped-up fervors. It's the modern equivalent of the Dutch tulip mania.

Anonymous said...


enjoy your iProduct...

Lons said...

Anonymous, I thought the post was pretty clear, but I DIDN'T ACTUALLY BUY AN iPHONE for myself...It was for my job. Your "baaaa," sir, has been incorrectly deployed.