San Francisco: During an onscreen demonstration of the iPhone in Apple's sprawling retail store here recently, an employee, clad in a black T-shirt, of course, surprised a potential customer.
Nonplused, the customer stammered, "You mean it's a cell phone, too?"
Such is the spell that Steve Jobs has cast on the American consumer.
It has been almost six months since Jobs, the world's consummate salesman, introduced the iPhone as the Ronco Veg-O-Matic for the Internet era. Tongue only partly in cheek, Jobs promised that Apple's entry into the cellular handset market would be a better phone, web browser, and music player.
Jobs succeeded in building expectations for what some have called "the God machine." The bar-of-soap-size phone is being coveted as a talisman for a digital age, and iPhone hysteria is beginning to reach levels usually reserved for video-game machines at Christmas.
Although the phones are expected to cost as much as $600 and they will not be available at Apple and AT&T stores until later this month, each company has received more than a million inquiries about the product's availability. Further evidence that expectations have been wound up to a fever pitch: the phones, or promises to deliver a phone, are already on sale on eBay for $830.
The anticipation, which is intense even by Jobsian standards, has led to some quiet, behind-the-scenes anxiety at Apple. Some Apple executives worry privately that expectations for the one-button phones may be too high and that first-generation buyers will end up disappointed.
Certainly there are skeptics. The high price will limit the phones' appeal to true believers. The cellular network that the iPhone operates on is slower than those of many of its rivals. Several of Apple's handset competitors hope that its decision not to include a keyboard, relying instead on a touch-screen virtual keyboard, will limit the attractiveness of the iPhone in text-intensive business markets.
"It's very media-centric," said a director at a handset competitor who declined to be identified, saying that his company did not want to elicit comparisons with the iPhone. "It will hit one sweet spot, but not necessarily all of the sweet spots -- we hope."
As has often been the case during the last three decades, Jobs' timing may be impeccable.
While entire industries have been struggling for more than half a decade to find the right combination of features to merge cell phones and computers, Apple appears to have stepped in at precisely the right moment.