As 6:00pm approached on Friday, the mob in front of the Apple's flagship San Francisco store counted down the seconds as if it was New Year's Eve.

Eric Eisher took in the whole scene with amusement.

"I'm here for the experience," said Eisher, of Berkeley. "I think of marketing as a form of art."

In what may have been the most anticipated product launch ever, or the most diabolical marketing campaign, the iPhone arrived in San Francisco, just 44 miles from Apple's Cupertino headquarters in Silicon Valley, where so many technological advances have been born.

Further north, in Seattle, interest in the iPhone in arch rival Microsoft’s backyard, was as high as anywhere else in the country.

Eisher was the second one in line outside the San Francisco store, having camped out in a small tent since Thursday morning. He awoke Friday, turned on his computer and used the Apple store's free Wi-Fi service, which extended out to the sidewalk. "I saw a picture of myself on Yahoo News," he said.

Mike Farr had his assistant wait in line for him to buy his iPhone. An active stock trader, Farr bought the iPhone in large part, for its web browser.

"I'm terrified of being away from my computer, at least during trading hours," he said. Now, he says he can take the web with him.

As 6:00pm approached hundreds were crowded onto the sidewalk and the TV news cameras were outnumbered by scores of people holding video and mobile phone cameras. Others took photos from the windows of city buses riding by. New iPhone owners who couldn't wait to get them activated, went to a cafe across the street with free Wi-Fi and got their iPhones functioning - one said, in only three minutes.

But other passers-by were puzzled by the iPhone mania.

"You can order it online," said Elizabeth Bassin, of Santa Barbara, as she watched the commotion from across the street. An Apple user, she is going to wait for a second generation iPhone to come along after the inevitable bugs are worked out.

The iPhone's pull was felt up north In Seattle too, home to Apple's rival, Microsoft.

Adrian, who asked that his last name not be used, was just one Microsoft employee standing in line at an Apple store. He wouldn’t point them out, but said that two other Microsofties from the Windows Mobile division were in line, planning to buy phones for competitive research.

Adrian’s friend Anna, also a Microsoft employee, agreed to come along to buy two additional phones for him. Apple set a two phones per person limit on Friday. Adrian already has a couple of Windows Mobile phones but said he wanted an iPhone because he expects the user interface to be superior. They both arrived at around 5:30am when there were already around 35 people in line.

By 5pm in the afternoon, Anton, another line waiter who asked that his last name not be used, was at the end of the line in position number 174. While some others nearby said they'd similarly waited for other newly released gadgets like the PlayStation, Anton said the only other time he’d stood in a similar line was as a boy in Russia, waiting for eggs.

He was one of the few people at the Seattle store who hadn’t yet decided to buy the phone. When the doors finally opened at 6pm, store employees instructed buyers to head left and people interested in trying out the phone to head right. After letting in the store capacity, just one young boy was on the right side of the store, playing with a phone. The rest appeared to have already been sold on the phone’s features.

Greg Korsgard was the first in line and the first out with a phone. He’d spent the night camped out in front of the store so he said that the first thing he was going to do when he got home was shower, even before trying out the phone.

A Sprint store and a Radio Shack store in the same shopping area were both quiet and an AT&T store had just a short line out front. A Verizon Wireless advertising truck drove around the parking lot, often met with jeers from iPhone fans.

Tino Novellino was one of the last people in line at the San Francisco store, standing a full two blocks from the entrance. He's heard all the criticism of the iPhone, that the EDGE network it operates on it slower than new 3G networks or that it's too expensive. But he's still impressed.

"It looks like the best device ever released," he said, then paused. "We'll see."

See also:

Hands-on iPhone preview

The definitive iPhone guide