As Apple gears up for the crush of customers expected for Saturday's iPad launch, employees who staff its retail stores are just as curious about the tablet as the fans who will line up outside.
Apple store workers say they have yet to see or touch the iPad, even though the launch is just days away and they are being trained and encouraged to talk about Apple's newest device with customers.
"We haven't seen it; we never do" before a product is launched, said one employee, who asked not to be identified because workers are barred from speaking with the media. "Every store employee I know, including the managers, they haven't seen it."
With its notoriously secretive corporate culture, Apple is loathe to circulate any iPads among retail troops ahead of the debut. Even in-store Apple repair techs -- known as "geniuses" -- don't yet know how to fix the gadget.
Since the iPhone launch in June 2007, Apple product releases have played out like concert tours, with fans sleeping in lines overnight and blanket media coverage that generates plenty of free advertising.
But amidst all the hype, the company's ethos of secrecy extends from its corporate perch in Cupertino, California, to its component suppliers and its network of more than 200 U.S. stores. "We did not see or hold an iPhone until an hour before it went on sale," said a former Apple store employee. "We didn't know much more about it than people asking us."
Major products are usually unveiled by Chief Executive Steve Jobs at special media events, and most retail employees are kept in the dark until the devices are publicly available. "There was really no word on anything," said another former store worker of the iPhone launch. "We saw a video of the keynote, and that was basically all you knew."
GUARDS AND DECOYS
The iPad is Apple's most significant product launch since the iPhone. Starting at $499, analysts estimate Apple could sell from 850,000 to 1.2 million units of the 9.7-inch touchscreen tablet in the April-June quarter.
Apple's U.S. stores will open at 9 a.m. on Saturday but the company has provided few details about the launch. If the iPhone debut is any guideline, Apple will have guards and decoys in place to hold the iPad's secrets.
At one store, Apple arranged to have two pallets arrive the day before the iPhone launch, placing one in the manager's office and the other in the stock room, both under the watchful eye of security cameras. Staff said one was filled with iPhones and the other was a decoy to discourage nosy employees.
A former assistant manager at an Apple store was ordered to remain at work all night before the iPhone launch, and given strict directions that only managers were allowed to see the smartphone, right up until just before they went on sale.
"We were told to stay overnight to guard them, to make sure nobody broke in and got to them. It was all a bit insane, but it wasn't really surprising at the time," he said. "It did put me off a little, but then you would read about something being leaked and you realize why they did it."
Retail employees are in many ways the public face of Apple, charged with spreading the gospel about the company's products to tens of millions of shoppers every year. Store staff, including part-time workers, have to sign nondisclosure agreements and can be fired for talking to outsiders.
They are paid around $10 an hour for entry-level work to over $30 a hour for those who staff the "Genius Bars" where customers come looking for help.
Tech savviness is not necessarily the top priority when it comes to hiring, according to the former assistant manager. He said there was a running joke about "Gapple" because his store often mined The Gap casual wear retail chain for potential employees.
"We looked for people who were passionate about Apple, people who would be comfortable selling the product," he said.
Employees get a 25 percent discount on iPods and Macs, but none for the iPhone. Employees said they have not yet been told whether they will get a discount for the iPad.
One of the former employees said Apple stores were a fun, upbeat place to work, despite the strictness over secrecy.
"I understand why they do it. They give you just a little bit of a peek, just to tease you," he said. "It drives people crazy but at the same time it generates all this interest. It's human nature."