TOKYO – Gadget lovers worldwide are already camped out ahead of Friday's global rollout of the new model of Apple Inc.'s iPhone, which is also the first iPhone to go on sale in many countries.
Carrier Softbank Corp., which beat market leader NTT DoCoMo for the right to sell the iPhone in Japan, is planning a countdown ceremony at its flagship downtown store.
By late Thursday, a line of nearly 800 iPhone fans snaked around the block, with some sleeping on the streets to ensure they would be among the first customers.
The iPhone goes on sale there five hours earlier than other nationwide outlets, helping to kick off a global rollout in 22 nations.
The first model, which launched in the United States a year ago, ended up being sold only in six countries — the U.S., Britain, Ireland, France, Germany and Austria.
Because of time differences, the new iPhones went on sale first in New Zealand, then Australia. Japan and Hong Kong are to follow. In the United States, phones will be available at 8 a.m. in each time zone.
Japan, though, is the tech-mad market that analysts like to watch. It 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.
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.
Japan has about 107 million cell phones, or about one for every person.
Many of the phones already work on 3G, or third-generation, wireless networks, 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'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 Finland's Nokia Corp.
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 glamorous 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.
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," he said. "There are lots of people who love it and jump at it, but there are those who are going to be less impressed."
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 among those 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 line since 1 a.m. Wednesday.
"There isn't anything else like it," Sasaki said.
The iPhone sparked similar enthusiasm in Australia.
In downtown Sydney, a few hundred people who had camped outside an Optus telecom store on a cold and windy winter night were treated to free pizza, coffee, massages and entertainment as the clocked inched toward midnight.
Brett Howell had sat outside the store since 1 p.m. Thursday, bringing a small blanket and a book, and was the first to buy the phone.
"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."
"I'm not a super geek, but apparently I am," added Howell, 36, a business analyst. "I'm Australia's super geek."
Ben Thomas, 27, 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 ($215) for the 8-gigabyte model, while the 16-gigabyte version costs 34,560 yen ($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, Calif., says it has sold about 6 million iPhones since last year. It hopes to sell 10 million by the end of 2008.