I spent the wee hours of my Saturday morning in line for the grand opening of a new Apple Store. If you've never been to one, it's an event.

The line starts early and by the time the store is almost ready to open, it snakes its way around the mall or down the street. Suddenly, the noise starts to build and build, and then Apple Store employees come racing around the corner or down the stairs, clapping and cheering and screaming. They run down the line, pumping fists and slapping hands, and it gets louder and louder. They form up in front of the store, bright colored shirts against wood, glass, and steel. Managers and specialists and concierges and geniuses all, they cheer for the crowd, and they scream for the crowd to bring that noise right back at them. Then they race away, the lights go out, the employees re-appear inside the store, and the doors open.

When line is released and it's the crowd's turn to run, into the store, grabbing one of the thousand free, location branded t-shirts they give away, and through the gauntlet of Apple Store employees who cheer and slap hands again, greeting every new customer.

So what's the point? It's an experience -- that's the point. The Apple Store is meant to be an experience. Buying an iPhone -- for which they now have new, dedicated activation centers in the store -- is meant to be an experience. Opening the iPhone box likewise, turning it on, using it. Macs have welcome videos that play the first time you turn them on. Safari 4 has the same. It's a wonder iPhones don't as well (they do have fairly slick screen-savers that play while on display at the store).

It's all about the customer -- and the customer becoming a user -- experience. Apple pours a lot of passion into crafting that experience (too much, sometimes, when the control of that experience alienates rather than empowers the user -- but that's often the price of unchecked passion).

They won't do video on an iPhone 3G because the framerate is below their 30-FPS standards. They won't put a camera in the iPod touch because VGA just isn't good enough quality for a flagship device. Steve Jobs has said he and Apple are just as proud of the products they didn't ship as the ones they did. He also said Apple makes the products they themselves want to own. And that's the key. That's the passion, and the focus on experience.

We just know Jony Ive prototyped the heck out of the iPhone hardware and packaging designs, and Scott Forstall and the software team, if not counting clicks, definitely counted on every tap, swipe, shake, and pinch to bring a smile to a new user's face.

TechCrunch's MG Siegler nailed it when he spoke of Apple's enthusiasm. It's easy to see everywhere from Jobs' keynote product introductions to Apple Store employees in the 'burbs.

It's not just Apple's great build quality and trend-setting user interface other companies are competing with -- it's Apple's culture which is as passionate as it is (often maddeningly) secretive. That's the culture that gets customers lining up for new store openings and new product releases, and makes the stores and products that they're lining up for. And it's not easy to maintain in large companies, which are often fragmented fiefdoms competing as much, or more, with themselves as they are with others.

How long Apple will be able to maintain that passion is anyone's guess, and they certainly make their share of mistakes along the way (insert G4 Cube joke here), but for now, especially for iPhone lovers, they're still firing on all cylinders.

(For anyone particularly interested in the the Apple Store opening I went to today -- Fairview Pointe-Claire, just outside Montreal -- I placed a few pictures up on Twitter).