San Francisco Apple store on iPad release dayHundreds of the earliest of West Coast early adopters lined up outside San Francisco's downtown Apple (AAPL) store Friday night and early Saturday morning to pick up the first models of the company's new iPad tablet computer.

For $499 to $699, they walked away with the second coming of Apple's first tablet, the MessagePad, supercharged by more than 15 years of technological, marketing and design progress. (Check out this timeline of Apple's iDynasty.) By year's end, Apple could sell as many as 3 million to 4 million iPads, if the Wall Street consensus is correct.

Hardy Buyers

With iPad-release enthusiasm reminiscent of the June, 2007, launch of Apple's first iPhone, customers craving the tablet computer started pre-ordering units as soon as the company started taking orders online on Mar. 12. Shoppers got a choice of Saturday delivery via UPS or in-store pickup. A limited number of iPads will also be available for walk-in sales at Apple stores and 673 Best Buy locations.

A hardy few camped outside Apple stores overnight, most notable among them, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who waited at the San Jose, Calif., store with a small but adoring group of other Apple enthusiasts.

Shoppers awaiting the San Francisco Apple store's 9 a.m. opening cited varied reasons for their eagerness to buy it.

"It's a giant step in technology," says Max Ackermann, the 41-year-old San Franciscan who landed the first spot in a line of buyers who had reserved or pre-ordered iPads before Saturday.

"Tablets have been around for a long time, but Apple's always able to take existing technologies [and make] a giant leap forward into the mainstream. It's really cool to be in the start period of all that," he adds.

Reasons for CravingSan Francisco Apple store on iPad release day

Ackermann arrived at the store at 10:30 p.m. Friday night to pick up an iPad with 16 GB of memory, which he had reserved earlier. The tablet will join a broad collection of Apple computers and other gadgets Ackermann has collected for most of his life, ever since his father brought home one of Jobs & Co.'s most famous early computers, the Apple IIe.

Kurt Collins, a 30-year old San Franciscan, joined the line for iPads at around 1 a.m.. He'd also waited for the first iPhone at an Apple store in Palo Alto. His top reason for getting an iPad: "It's shiny."

Collins expects his new 16 GB iPad will allow him to work on documents, presentations and spreadsheets in about 95% of cases that would have otherwise required one of his two MacBook laptops.

Buying a WiFi-only iPad instead of waiting for models with cellular data capability was an easy choice, he says. He doesn't expect to be pulling out his iPad on a street corner to pull up a map. That's what his iPhone is for, he explains.

Unveiling to Cheers

Olivia Smith, 50, waited in the line of customers hoping to buy an iPad without a pre-order. But she isn't buying it for herself. It's for her son, 26, who's busy working in her coffee shop Saturday morning.

Smith thinks the iPad's pricing is fair. "It's lower than anticipated, but that's good. It's a recession out here," she notes.

Drew Forster, designer of an off-road version of the Segway personal transporter, was at the San Francisco sales kick-off with one of his custom-built Segways, featuring a flat panel TV bolted to its front.

Shortly before 9 a.m., veils that had shrouded the Apple store's interior from view dropped to cheers from the crowd, revealing a clapping blue-shirted throng of Apple employees inside the store.

A Wait for Cell Connection

At 9 a.m. the door opened, and customers began filing in to pick up their bounty, seemingly without a hitch.

All iPads sold in March will be WiFi-only models. New online orders for those models can still be placed at the Apple store, but the units won't ship immediately. (For those who haven't pre-ordered, find out how to get your hands on an iPad.) IPad models sporting support for paid cellular data plans are slated to ship in late April.

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