January 10, 2007 4:00 AM PST

Queuing up for Jobs and the iPhone

SAN FRANCISCO--It may be darkest just before dawn in some places of the world, but that's not the case on the streets of San Francisco hours before Macworld.

Most folks would think 4:45 a.m. is a time fit only for sleeping and garbage-collecting. But I had agreed to meet a few local television reporters for an interview prior to the start of Macworld 2007 Tuesday morning. As I drove down 4th Street in front of the sprawling Moscone Convention Center looking for a parking place, I spotted a line of chattering figures huddled against the glass walls of the building. They were queued up hundreds deep, and they were waiting for Apple's CEO, Steve Jobs.

Macworld scenes

By and large, technology trade shows don't attract average people willing to camp out overnight for a chance at a prime seat. But there they were, exchanging good-natured barbs with each other about the rumored products (namely, the iPhone) expected later that morning as they struggled to stay warm on the sidewalk.

It's hard to find another company that receives such unconditional love. Some people are fiercely loyal to car companies. Others swear by Budweiser over Miller or Coors, despite the similarities among the macrobrews.

Likewise, some people would think nothing about camping out in line for tickets to the Rolling Stones, or for a chance to see what new Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka will look like pitching to the Yankees' Derek Jeter in Fenway Park. But for some reason, lots of people outside the tech industry can't grasp why Apple attracts such a following.

To those in line, it's simple: this is what they do for fun. "We love Macs," said Jessica Rummels, who brought her preteen daughter, Celeste, from Baton Rouge, La., to witness the show. "They make our lives easier."

There's a Mac subculture akin to Star Trek aficionados or Burning Man attendees. Its devotees can be testy, defensive and intensely devoted to their Apple products. And Jobs, they say, is their hero, despite a reputation for ruling his company with an iron fist and operating a very profitable business that, just like any other corporation, is mainly concerned with finding ways to extract more money from its customers.

At one point, before security guards starting asking those in line to bunch together, the early morning line stretched from the corner of 4th and Howard Streets down the street for more than two blocks.

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The question that popped into my sleep-deprived head was, "Why?" Why spend the night on a sidewalk for nothing more than a chance at a 30th row seat straining to see Jobs on the keynote stage? After all, there would be no shortage of news coverage of the event, and I, along with dozens of other reporters, was planning to write a blow-by-blow account of Jobs' speech.

Most of the preshow buzz, of course, was about Apple introducing a cellular phone that many hoped would wow the assembly. There was plenty of anticipation as to what Apple might do to break into the mobile-phone market, and several predictions came true with the arrival of the iPhone hours later.

But the Macworld diehards seemed more motivated by a chance to see their hero in the flesh, and the camraderie of being part of a group of like-minded individuals.

Andrew Reimisch, 34, and his friend Stephen Barta, 26, were first in line. The San Francisco Bay Area residents arrived at the Moscone Center a little after 9 p.m. PST Monday night, and were still going strong at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday, fueled by lots of coffee and the antics of South Park's cast of characters on Barta's video iPods. What brought them to Macworld?

"Seeing Steve in person," Reimisch said. Last year, the two arrived at Moscone at 5 a.m., when the line had already reached massive lengths. This year, they were determined not to let that happen.

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Apple on the line
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Farther back, Joe Schwarz waited patiently. Schwarz traveled all the way from Maryland to attend the conference, mixing in some vacation time in San Francisco with the opportunity to attend the conference. Likewise, he came to see Jobs. "He's going to be releasing brand new products to the world, and we're going to be here to see it," he said.

Several in line declared without reservation that they would buy an Apple-designed phone--hours before they even had any idea what it looked like or what it might cost. Later, it was revealed that even Cingular CEO Stan Sigman fell into this camp. Sigman told Macworld attendees that he signed a deal with Jobs to produce what would become the iPhone without ever having seen the design.

Schwarz wasn't quite that convinced, saying that he would wait for a second-generation product before making the plunge. But others surrounding his position in line eagerly batted iPhone ideas back and forth, eager to pump up a product they weren't certain existed. "It will have a good mail user interface," said one. "No, it will be iChat-based with video," another declared.

Barta said Apple's famous campaign slogan, "Think Different," summed up why he was out in the cold Tuesday morning with hundreds of his kinsfolk. If that credo seems strange, then think about whatever your favorite leisure activity might be, and what lengths you'd be willing to go to see the most important person in that field.

If you're a Mac fan, there's no substitute for Jobs.

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