By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
June 6, 2009

There were eleven customers huddled under umbrellas in a steady rain when the doors to Sprint’s (S) flagship store in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village opened at 6 p.m. ET Friday night — the worldwide retail debut of this week’s hottest smartphone.

First in line was Alfredo Rodriguez, 37, a hospital building services employee from the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. He had been a Sprint customer for a year and a half and was ready to trade his HTC Diamond for a Palm (PALM) Pre.

The tech press has been obsessed with the Pre since it was unveiled in January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where it was showered with plaudits and awards, including Best in Show. Built by a team headed by Jon Rubinstein — once one of Steve Jobs’ closest advisers — it was seen as the worthiest competitor yet to the Apple (AAPL) iPhone.

But in the weeks before its debut, Palm’s PR team sought to lower expectations, telling the press not to expect the hysterical employees and snaking lines that have accompanied the launch of every iPhone to date.

Alfredo Rodriguez only had to wait an hour to get his Pre. He arrived at 5 p.m. and when the doors opened he was swiftly ushered to a sales booth, where he was persuaded to buy two add-ons, a case and a wireless charger.

Palm’s day in the sun — or rather the rain — may not last long. Apple is expected to announce a new iPhone some time before the end of June. Perhaps as early as Monday.

UPDATE: When we checked back Saturday morning at 9:30 a.m., there were 19 people in line and 10 customers inside buying phones. The store had opened at 8 a.m., two hours early, with roughly 20 people queued up to buy Pres, according to a customer who said he arrived at 8 sharp.

Reports from around the country suggest that this level of demand — steady, but relatively modest —  was fairly typical on Saturday, the Pre’s first full day of sales.

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