The iPhone went on sale at a Tokyo store on Friday, making its debut in Japan, amid swirling smoke after a 30-second countdown chanted by hundreds of people lined up, some for days, snaking around the block.
The store in downtown Tokyo of Japanese carrier Softbank Corp.'s store, started selling Apple Inc.'s much awaited cell phone five hours ahead of the other stores in the nationwide chain. The celebration, which included a digital clock display ticking away over the entrance, was part of a global rollout in 22 nations of the 3G, or third-generation, wireless connecting iPhone, an upgrade of the model that went on sale last year in the US and several other nations.
Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong are the other Asia-Pacific countries getting the new phone.
"This is the year that the cell phone becomes an Internet-connecting machine," Softbank President Masayoshi Son told the crowd at the countdown ceremony. "Today is that day that will make it real, and it's a historic day."
By Friday, the line that had been growing for days at the downtown store had reached about 1,000 people, although signs had gone up that said the store had stopped accepting applications. Exactly how many iPhones will be available is uncertain, fueling the hype about the Apple gadget that boasts a cool-factor reputation.
The iPhone is promising to be an opportunity for third-running Softbank, with 18 per cent of the Japanese market, to further wrest consumers away from rivals after wooing them with cheaper fees and eye-catching ads.
Tomohiko Katsu, a 38-year-old banker, said he has rarely lined up for any product in his life but wanted to make sure he got the iPhone.
"All the features come packed in a compact machine," he said."It's really small for a mobile PC device." Katsu was shrugging off the criticism already popping up from some Japanese that the iPhone may be a bit heavy and bulky compared to cell phones common in this gadget-loving nation. The iPhone's capabilities are less revolutionary here, where people have for years used the tech-heavy local phones for restaurant searches, e-mail, music downloads, reading digital novels and electronic shopping. They tend to shrug off foreign models, such as those of Nokia Corp.
Some people buying the iPhone said they planned to use it as their second cell phone, and may compare carrier services first before choosing to go with just the iPhone.
The latest Japanese cell phones have two key features absent on the iPhone digital TV broadcast reception and the "electronic wallet" for making payments at stores and vending machines equipped with special electronic readers.
But they don't have the iPhone's nifty touch screen or glamour image.
Another key difference is that the iPhone is designed to browse the Web in the much the same way computers do. The networks promoted by Japanese carriers, such as "i-mode" from NTT DoCoMo, are more closed than the Web. Such systems have allowed carriers to control services and charge fees.
Japan is home to powerful electronics brands such as Sony Corp. and Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.'s Panasonic, but its consumers are trend-chasers and have long adored Apple products such as the iPod.
Japan has about 107 million cell phones, or about one for every person. Many of the phones already are 3G, offering the speedy Internet access that the new iPhone will also deliver. The old iPhone used a relatively slow cellular network combined with the ability to use fast Wi-Fi hotspots.
The iPhone is selling in Japan for 23,040 yen (US$215) for the 8-gigabyte model, while the 16-gigabyte version costs 34,560 yen (US$320).
Whether that's a discount by Japanese standards is unclear. For years, some mobile phones were practically given away for free, but recently, as the market saturated, prices have gone up. Apple plans to sell its 8-gigabyte iPhone for US$199 in the United States and the 16-gigabyte version for US$299. The company, based in Cupertino, California, says it has sold about 6 million iPhones since last year. It hopes to sell 10 million by the end of 2008.