Mark Lennihan, Associated Press
An oversized display of an Apple iPhone hangs in the window of the company's store in New York. The new Apple iPhone goes on sale today.

ATLANTA — By necessity, Glenn Lurie has become a rather sneaky man.

When his company, Cingular Wireless, put him in charge of negotiating a deal to carry Apple's iPhone about two years ago, he kept the secret from outsiders — even his immediate family members.

Last month, when Lurie became one of a small number of people in the world to get an iPhone, he kept it under wraps. He tested the device on the sly, though he was caught by an occasional onlooker. Someone recognized the device while Lurie used it in an airport, prompting him to quickly put it away.

"Trying to use this thing and hide it has been pretty interesting," Lurie said. "I've had many people get a glimpse."

Even at his own home in suburban Atlanta, the iPhone remains largely off-limits. "I have not allowed my children or my wife to play with it," he said.

While Apple has received the bulk of the attention for the iPhone, AT&T's Atlanta-based wireless unit — formerly known as Cingular — is working overtime to get ready, too. AT&T made many concessions to win the right to sell the vaunted iPhone and is abiding by Apple's fervor for secrecy.

Lurie, president of national distribution for AT&T's wireless operation, has played a key role in the company's ongoing work with Apple. Now, with the launch of the iPhone just days away, perhaps the most intense part of the process is about to begin. The former Cingular has handled big product launches before, but nothing quite like this.

"I think it will be a brand new experience for us," Lurie said. "There's no question."

Consider the following:

• AT&T will sell the device in about 1,800 stores. While the launch is set for 6 p.m. today, AT&T won't divulge how many phones each store will get. Eager buyers are expected to line up or even camp out overnight.

• AT&T has hired about 2,000 extra staffers, or about one per store, to help with the launch. Some are likely to become permanent employees.

• Store staffers haven't been given iPhones, and the devices aren't being shipped to retail sites early, in order to prevent advance sales.

• Relatively few people have used an iPhone. A handful were handed out to influential product reviewers, such as Walter Mossberg of The Wall Street Journal, who on Tuesday called it "a beautiful and breakthrough hand-held computer."

While other new cellphones have created a lot of anticipation — Motorola's then-cutting-edge Razr was hot in late 2005, for example — the iPhone has generated more buzz than anything AT&T, or the industry, has ever seen.

An iPhone will cost $499 or $599, depending on the model. An individual user will pay as little as $59.99 for a plan with 450 minutes of talk time, plus 200 text messages and unlimited use of data services to get e-mail or to surf the Web. The most expensive plan for an individual costs $219.99, with 6,000 minutes.

Even with steep prices for the device, plus monthly service rates, the iPhone is still expected to be a strong seller.

"If Apple sold this for a thousand dollars initially, that would be fine," said Michael Gartenberg, vice president and research director at Jupiter Research.

They'll be offered online, but most are likely to be sold in person, whether at Apple stores like the one in Lenox Square or at AT&T stores.

The caveat is that the only AT&T outlets that are getting iPhones are locations the company owns — in other words, no authorized agents or giant national retailers like Best Buy.

At an AT&T — or former Cingular — outlet on North Druid Hills Road in Decatur, the iPhone won't be sold because the site isn't a company-owned store. Manager Mickey Jett said plenty of people have asked about the iPhone. "We just direct them to the corporate locations," he said.

Without a doubt, he'd love to have iPhones. "I mean — yeah," Jett said.

Lurie said AT&T and Apple will decide on adding outlets later.

While many details about the iPhone have been released, AT&T is still trying to keep phones under wraps until the last possible moment, even with store workers. "It's a tough balance," Lurie said. "Our employees will have an opportunity to demo the device and get it in their hands before launch."

But they won't be able to take home an iPhone. AT&T isn't letting staffers buy one of the devices during the first few weeks on the market, nor will they get discounts.

The reason is simple: AT&T and Apple expect sellouts. "We just know there's going to be huge demand," Lurie said. "Will that supply meet demand? Probably not."

AT&T and Apple face increasingly high expectations for the iPhone, thanks in no small part to their own hype in promoting the device. Roger Entner, senior vice president-communications sector at IAG Research, called the attention unprecedented. "If this device doesn't cure cancer and solve world hunger, then it's a failure," he joked.

Lurie, 41, has worked in the wireless business since 1990, dating to a job selling phones in a mall in Portland, Ore., his hometown. If he's stressed about the biggest task of his career, Lurie hides it well. "It's gonna be a lot of fun," he said.

Dist. by New York Times News Service