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Toying with the Tablets

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, exactly one week after the iPad arrived, about 100 people walked around the Apple store at Southpoint to play with the newest, shiniest toy on display at the very entrance. There, throngs of browsers flooded the two wooden tables—the same light, ashy color of the floor—each boasting eight iPads for perusing. Six more rested on an adjacent counter. Outside, an iPad advertisement lured customers inside.

The wait to futz around with the long-awaited tablet—baseline price: $499, before tax—wasn’t too long, and Apple employees, young and hip, swarmed any customer who appeared even slightly idle. They all wore blue T-shirts that read, in white print: “iPad: A magical and revolutionary product at an unbelievable price,” adorned with the Apple logo on the left sleeve. The employees’ nametags, draped around their necks, were shaped like iPods. A boyish-looking employee approached me, and I asked a few questions about sales so far. “Well, you won’t find anyone willing to talk to you, because we’ll lose our jobs,” he said, a sentiment that was repeated to me twice more by other employees. “But I can tell you that the front tables have been very crowded. Also, we’re sold out of the 16 and 32 [gigabyte] models. They come in when they come in, and they fly off the shelves.”

Above those wooden shelves were more enticing photos of the iPad, even though looking at the device on canvas and holding it, viscerally, are two completely different experiences. Still, the advertisements showed a wide range of uses for the iPad, all directed at what seemed like the company’s core clientele. There was a New York Times travel article about visiting Japan and two Google Maps of the Eiffel Tower, one satellite, the other in street view. One photo depicted a dog on a surfboard, while a pretty, blonde twenty-something with blue eyes filled another. Right next to a screenshot of Star Trek was an excerpt from the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s memoir True Compass, page 30 out of 683.

Still, not many customers noticed the wall-to-wall mural of iPad art, caught up instead in the act of playing with the thing itself. Groups of kids looked over each other’s shoulders to watch it in action, while two older women practiced typing on the tablet. The crowd shuffled in and out, sharing the iPad with others, as one Apple store employee snapped a photo of the scene—on his iPhone, naturally. (Taking out a BlackBerry in the middle of iHeaven struck me as sacrilegious, so I kept mine stuffed in my pocket.) The MacBook Pros and iPods looked lonely on nearby tables; the poor iPod shuffles screamed of neglect.

“Nope, there haven’t been any fights over the iPad yet,” one employee told me over the din of chatter, floating about the sun-filled store.

“It’s a peaceful store,” I said.

“We try to keep the environment as calm as possible,” he said, as another employee, clutching a can of Klear, walked past to gently dab the iPad.

It was also calm—peculiarly so, perhaps—the week before, when the store opened at 9 a.m. to a rush of tech geeks and early adopters. The front window panes, stretching from the floor to the top of the door, were initially covered with black curtains, eventually lifted to unveil the masterpiece inside to light applause. (It was still early.) The first people in the store were those who had reserved iPads; the first man in the public line, stretching even longer, entered about an hour later. “It was pretty cool,” one employee said. “Also, it was my first big product release, so that was very exciting.”

It was still buzzing seven days later—it was normally crowded, but customers were typically dispersed throughout the store, not huddled around the front table. Still, in my short stay at the Apple store, the only distraction from the product came when a cow mascot from Chick-fil-A—with the chain’s slogan, “Eat Mor Chikin,” emblazoned across his back—pretended to walk through the glass doors before strolling away, catching gawking gazes the whole time. Only a giant fake cow could distract anyone from the iPad.

Perhaps the mascot, too, was hunting a new gadget, but an employee, stuck by the iPod display, took his presence in another way, reminding himself of his own needs. “Man,” he muttered, “I could use a sandwich right about now.”

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