Lee Phone? Oui!

iPhone and keyboard photo

Lee Phone? This is, of course, about the iPhone, but because "i" in France is close in pronunciation to the English "e", the device is referred to by most French people as something that sounds pretty much like the title, or l'ePhone. In general, it is not always obvious to understand the subject of technology-related discussions; for example, one often needs a couple of seconds to realize that when techies refer to Fear-Weir or Fie-Air-Why-Air (the latter used by people who consider themselves a cut above those who use the former, at least linguistically), they mean Apple's name for the IEEE 1394 standard, FireWire. But I digress.

The date set for the launch of Apple's iPhone in France was October 29, 2007, a little bit after Germany and the UK, but ahead of the other European countries. For months preceding the event, the French press, web sites, and forums were full of speculations of who the launch partner would be, what the plans were going to cost, what features would and would not be available from the start, whether it was going to be possible to buy unlocked phones, and so on. While it had been clear for weeks that Orange would be the carrier distributing l'ePhone in France, details about the subscription plans only began to appear one week or so before October 29, and Orange's official announcement regarding pricing did not come out until October 27.

The exciting thing was that twelve Orange agencies across France were going to start selling iPhones at 6:30 PM on October 28, some 15 hours before the official launch. Since one of those 12 agencies was located downtown Nice, we decided to go for it. Vicki and I showed up in front of the store at around 4:30 PM, and only five other people were ahead of us. By the time the store temporarily closed at 5 PM, there were about twenty or thirty of us waiting.

For anyone who has ever attended an American Apple store event for which people show up early, waiting for l'ePhone was definitely an experience. First of all, the French don't believe in standing in line, or queuing up, as they say across the Channel; they prefer to congregate in huge blobs, presumably to prove the wisdom of Matthew 20:16 (look it up; Google is your friend). This blob began to crowd around the now closed glass doors of the store. Behind those doors, a hefty security guard was giving the crowd outside the evil eye, while employees were scuttling around inside hanging posters, supervising the hanging of posters, or attempting to look managerial by doing neither.

Even though the store was closed, the door had to be opened occasionally to admit employees or visitors, such as the press. Whenever this happened, those attempting to gain entrance had to squeeze their way through the growing crowd and wave to the security guard while flashing a badge of some kind. The guard would then push a button to open the sliding glass door so that the person could be admitted. Now the door had to be closed again, so people had to step back and remain perfectly still so as to fool the motion sensor mounted above the entrance into believing that there was no one there. The door would start closing, and inevitably someone would move ever so slightly, and it would slide open again. This went on a few times with the security guard waving his arms trying to shoo the crowd back (and thus causing the doors to open again himself on more than one occasion). When the edge of the door eventually made it to the far side of the entrance, it engaged with a very distinctive click that immediately caused the crowd to surge forward until the noses of those in the front practically touched the glass.

Around 5:30 PM, a reporter and a cameraman from the local TV station arrived. They were naturally allowed to enter the store and given a demo of the iPhone accompanied by the "ooohhhhs" of those outside who had never actually seen an iPhone other than in photos or videos. Then the doors were opened, the camera was pointed at the crowd, and the reporter came out and started to ask those smart and incisive questions the press is so famous for. "Why are you willing to wait so long to buy an expensive phone?" she asked a young man. "This is not about a phone; this is about the greatest evolution in mobile telephony ever," came the answer from a guy who looked as though he was still in high school. The lady standing next to us turned away and pulled her scarf around her head. "I don't want to appear on television; it would be way too embarrassing to be seen waiting in line for a phone!" she exclaimed. She was waiting to purchase l'ePhone for her son.

"Have you been here long?" the reporter asked a young man who was standing in front of us despite having arrived at least half an hour after we got there. "Oh, since about 4 o'clock," came the shameless lie. After a few minutes, cameraman and reporter squeezed their way back into the store, starting another round of the door game. A photographer showed up next, then a few employees left only ten minutes later. The motor moving those doors sure was working overtime.

At 6:30 PM, the doors finally opened for the rest of us. The security guard and the store managers stood in the entrance and announced that since there were only five customer service stations, only five people (actually five parties: people who were together and could be helped by one salesperson were considered one customer) would be allowed inside the store at any one time. "Who was first?" asked the manager. Those of us who had been there the longest pointed out the right people, and so Vicki and I ended up first in line for the second group. They actually allowed us to enter a little ahead of time so that we could be helped the moment a salesperson became available.

As soon as it was our turn, we got our two iPhones with the service contracts we wanted. To do this, we had to provide proof of residency and proper ID, a utility bill and a passport in our case. After the papers had been photocopied and the data entered into the computer, the printer refused to produce the contracts and the lady who had helped us proceeded to fill in the fairly elaborate forms by hand. "You comprehend," she explained, "c'est du Wee-Fee, so naturellement it doesn't always work." "You should use Macs and Airport, then your Wi-Fi would work," I replied, but she was too busy scribbling to hear me.

An hour after we had entered the store, we walked out with our brand-spanking new iPhones, to the applause of some of the well over one hundred people waiting outside. Yes, the crowd actually applauded, probably more because there were now fewer people ahead of them than for congratulating us on our purchasing decision.

So was it worth it? You bet! We were among the first half dozen or so people to have a legitimate iPhone in the Southeast of France, and that has to count for something. When we got home, we opened a bottle of wine and our iPhone boxes (in that order; after all, this is France!) and spent the rest of the evening and the better part of the night playing with our new toys.

In 2001, Steve Jobs introduced the first iPod ("a thousand songs in your pocket") with its 5 gigabyte hard disk. Now, a mere six years later, the iPhone increases the number of songs in our pockets, adds photographs, videos, a camera, telephony, email, even the whole Internet, and all in a design no other phone can match and a coolness factor few products can touch. We'd buy it again in a flash!

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