Video-game geeks braved freezing temperatures across the US yesterday to make sure they would be among the first to lay hands on Microsoft's new games console. They camped out overnight in driving rain in Manhattan and thick fog in Seattle to be at the front of the queue for an Xbox 360.
The eagerly awaited console promises graphics approaching photographic quality, the ability to play music and video, and an opportunity to link gamers over the internet.
Peter Gonzalez, 19, a student from New York, queued for almost 30 hours in front of the Manhattan retailer Best Buy. He said: "It was freezing cold, the rain was horrible." Mr Gonzalez said he planned to stay up all night playing games before heading to classes in the morning. "I feel amazing," he said.
Crowds cheered when the first consoles were sold. UK gamers must wait until 2 December for the new Xbox to go on sale here.
Bill Gates, the chairman and founder of Microsoft, reckons the sleeker, smaller, silver-and-white 360 will wrest control of the $28.5bn (£16.6bn) gaming industry from its Japanese rival Sony. Mr Gates, the world's richest man, said it was the "hottest product we've ever had".
He is betting that the latest Xbox, the software giant's only unprofitable business last year, will boost sales of its other products to consumers. Evan Wilson, a sector analyst at Pacific Crest Securities in Oregon, said: "It's a Trojan horse to get a Microsoft product into the living room."
Yesterday's early launch gives Microsoft a valuable head-start over Sony, whose PlayStation 3 console is not slated to be launched in Japan until the middle of next year. Americans will not be able to lay their hands on one until a few months after that.
"Last time we were the new entrant," Mr Gates said. "We didn't have credibility. We came in late. Everyone agreed we had the better box. Here we have the better box, but we are shipping first." He committed to a games market tipped to soar to about $42bn by 2010, even if his company failed to overhaul Sony's market lead.
But shares in Microsoft dipped 25 cents to $27.91 on the New York Stock Exchange after the company bowed to European pressure to start to open up the secret file formats behind its Excel and Word programmes by submitting its code to Ecma, the standardisation body.