Japanese fans camping out for iPhone 3G launch

Hiroyuki Sano, a graduate student who turns 25 this week, couldn't think of a better way Wednesday to celebrate his birthday than being the first person in Japan to own an iPhone.

So he ditched class in Nagoya and headed 160 miles north to Tokyo's trendy Omotesando district, home to mobile carrier Softbank Corp.'s flagship store. Sano arrived at 6 a.m. Tuesday, grabbed the first spot in line and prepared to wait three days and one hour until Apple's much-hyped handset goes on sale Friday at 7 a.m.

A longtime Apple fan, he brought along his MacPro laptop and iPod, as well as a change of clothes, an umbrella, snacks and a folding chair. He even got permission to skip school.

"My professor is a big Apple fan, so when I told him I wanted to come line up for the iPhone, he told me to go for it," Sano said after a fitful night of sleep in his chair. "My mom told me I was crazy."

About 15 other iPhone enthusiasts had joined Sano in line as of Wednesday morning, eager to get their hands on a device that hasn't been available in Japan until now. The previous generation of iPhones, which operated on GSM-based networks, were incompatible with Japanese systems.

Softbank, Japan's No. 3 mobile phone company, won the coveted right to sell the new 3G version and will launch nationwide sales at noon Friday. Its shop in Omotesando will open five hours earlier and devote Friday, Saturday and Sunday solely to the iPhone, said company spokesman Naoki Nakayama.

Nakayama declined to reveal how many iPhones Softbank expects to sell or how many units it will have on hand at the store. The company is limiting sales to one unit per customer.

When the iPhone 3G goes on sale worldwide Friday, Japan will be among the first countries to have it, following New Zealand and then Australia. Lines are starting to form in other countries as well, with the New Zealand Herald reporting Wednesday about a man who began camping out Tuesday night in an attempt to become the first person in the world to own the latest iPhone.

In Tokyo, Kouichi Funyu, 25, settled into line Wednesday morning around 10 a.m. after hopping on the train from nearby Tochigi prefecture.

"I was relieved," he said. "I thought there'd be more people."

The aspiring actor, who sports a mohawk and tattoos and prefers to be called 'Butch,' owns other Apple products and described the iPhone as a radical departure from most Japanese handsets.

"I like how they introduced the touch-panel concept to the mobile phone," he said. "And Apple design is the best."

But some industry observers have questioned whether Apple can become a significant presence in Japan's mobile market _ one of the biggest and most advanced in the world. While the iPhone offers high-speed Web browsing and a button-free touch screen, it lacks functions that have become standard in many Japanese handsets, including mobile terrestrial digital television service and e-money capabilities.

Even Sano wonders whether the iPhone will catch on.

"I'm not sure how popular it'll be among general users," Sano said. "But for us die-hard Apple fans, we're happy to buy the iPhone."

Softbank will subsidize its subscribers' mobile phone bills for two years, making the cost of the 8-gigabyte iPhone 23,040 yen (US$215). The 16-gigabyte version will cost about US$320. The iPhone will be sold though Softbank and will not be available at the seven Apple Stores in Japan.

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 says it has sold about 6 million iPhones so far this year and has a goal to sell 10 million.