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Apple's iPhone 3G debuts in Japan, toy geeks thrilled

Gadget lovers are already camped out at a Tokyo store ahead of the global rollout Friday of the next-generation iPhone. But whether the debut for the hit cell phone in Japan will score with anyone beyond a niche crowd remains to be seen.

Japanese carrier Softbank Corp., which won the right to sell the iPhone here beating market leader NTT DoCoMo, is planning a countdown ceremony at its flagship downtown store. The iPhone goes on sale there five hours earlier than other nationwide outlets, helping to kickoff a global rollout in 22 nations.

Exactly how many iPhones will be available is uncertain, fueling the hype about the Apple Inc. machine that boasts a cool-factor reputation. Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong are the other Asia-Pacific countries getting the new phone Friday.

Japan, though, is the tech-mad market that analysts like to watch. It is home to powerful electronics makers such as Sony Corp. and Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., which makes Panasonic brand products, but its consumers have a weak spot for trendiness and have long adored Apple products such as the iPod.

The iPhone is also promising to be an opportunity for third-running Softbank, with 18 percent of the Japanese market, to further wrest consumers away from rivals after wooing them with cheaper fees and eye-catching ads.

Still, the iPhone is entering one of the most intensely competitive mobile markets in the world.

Japan has about 107 million cell phones, which calculates to nearly one cell phone for every Japanese. Many of the phones already work on 3G, or third-generation, wireless networks, offering the speedy wireless access that the iPhone also delivers.

For years, Japanese have used the tech-heavy local phones for restaurant searches, e-mail, music downloads, reading digital novels and electronic shopping. They tend to shrug off overseas offerings such as Nokia Corp. models.

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-panel or glamour image.

Another key difference is that the iPhone works well as a mobile device to access the Internet. The networks promoted by Japanese carriers, such as "i-mode" from NTT DoCoMo, are more closed systems compared with the Internet. Such systems have allowed carriers to control services and charge fees as part of mobile bills.

Masayuki Otani, deputy chief of research at Maruwa Securities Co. in Tokyo, said the iPhone faces competition from emerging rivals, who offer mobile Internet devices in Japan, and the iPhone may attract a limited following.

"The iPhone is a fad. There are lots of people who love it and jump at it, but there are those who are going to be less impressed," he said.

An informal Internet survey by The Nikkei, Japan's top business daily, found that 18 percent of the respondents said they were considering buying an iPhone, citing its touch panel and iPod functions as reasons.

Norikazu Sasaki, a 20-year-old student, who was among about 60 people in line for the iPhone in Tokyo, was already won over.

"The iPhone is so user-friendly, more than any other mobile phone. It combines the best features of a PC with the best features of a phone," said Sasaki, who's been taking turns with two friends to save his spot in the cue since Wednesday 1 a.m.

"There isn't anything else like it."

The iPhone has sparked similar enthusiasm in Australia, where lines were also forming ahead of Friday's launch.

In downtown Sydney, Brett Howell, 36, didn't mind fighting the chill of the Down Under winter for the distinction of being first in a line of about 40 at an Optus store Thursday.

"I wanted to make sure I got one," he said as he huddled on the sidewalk with a small blanket and a book. "It's only 11 hours in total."

Twenty-seven-year-old Ben Thomas had his own explanation for iPhone mania.

"It's a chick magnet," he said. "I guess it's just I'm a toy geek. I gotta have one."

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 $199 in the United States and the 16-gigabyte version for $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.