Lost iPhone prototype: the whole story

Australian Macworld staff
23 April, 2010
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If you haven’t kept abreast of the situation, an unreleased Apple iPhone prototype showed up on the internet this week. This is our coverage collated for you to catch up on how it all played out.

Sunday 18 April:

A device that appears to be a prototype iPhone has been found on the floor of a bar in San Jose, California.

The photos are doing the rounds on the net, and they are pretty convincing. The original report by Engadget suggests the phone has a front-facing camera, 80GB of storage (which seems odd), and is not booting. It had previously booted however, and Engadget describes the operating system as “decidedly new”, which is another cause for concern.

There are a number of cues that suggest this might be a prototype rather than than the actual new iPhone. For starters, the aluminium sides have seams that I would never expect to see on an iPhone. They make it look more like any other phone on the market, and I don’t think Apple would go for such a generic look. Also, the storage size on the back of the device is listed “XXGB”, which is a clear indicator that this is an unfinished product. (Though would Apple go to the trouble of adding this level of detail to a prototype? I’m sceptical.)

It also appears the volume switch has been replaced by two discrete buttons, which I certainly wouldn’t complain about. It’s sometimes hard to distinguish the up from down when the current iPhone’s in my pocket.

Like I said, I’m sceptical of this one, despite the photo clarity. But if Apple has something similar up their sleeves, I can’t wait to see it.

I’ll add more information as it comes to hand.

Monday 19 April:

Engadget has added another photo rumour-lovers might be familiar with.

The blurry photo that was first leaked before the announcement of the iPad it depicts, appears to show the same prototype iPhone as has just been found. While the photo itself isn’t overly conclusive, John Gruber thinks Engadget’s confidence might be “based partly on factors they can’t publish”. Here’s what Gruber has to say:

“So I called around, and I now believe this is an actual unit from Apple — a unit Apple is very interested in getting back. I am not certain that this looks like the actual production unit Apple intends to ship to consumers. I think it’s a testbed frame — thicker, with visible (un-Apple-like) seams, meant to fit in 3GS cases so as to disguise units out in the wild. It’s hard to tell from the photos. But I think it is the real deal in terms of the internals and display being next-gen iPhone hardware, and the new glass back. Put another way: the front looks legit, the back looks legit, but the sides I’m not sure about. A front-facing camera and 960×640 display are two things I believe are slated for the next iPhone. (The “80 GB” of storage sounds like a mistake to me, but who knows? SSD storage typically comes only in even power-of-two increments.)”

So assuming this is a prototype unit (whether the actual finished model or not), it looks like the new iPhone might feature a glass back. Gruber also points readers to a patent describing high durability ceramic device enclosures. “Glass-like appearance and feel but far stronger and more scratch resistant. And: radio transparent,” he writes.

I’m intrigued. I wonder if we might hear something before the rumoured June announcement at WWDC?

Tuesday 20 April:

On Monday morning (in the US), rival tech site Gizmodo posted a lengthy story on the device, which it claimed to have acquired a week prior. The accompanying photos and video show a markedly different design from previous iPhone models, including a flat back, high-resolution screen, separate volume buttons, a larger camera lens with a flash, a front-facing camera, a second microphone, and an aluminium finish around the edge of the unit. They also claimed to be able to get it to display the “Connect to iTunes” screen and verified in iTunes, Xcode, and OS X’s System Profiler that it reported itself as an iPhone.

The plot thickened with a follow-up post by Gruber, which said it’s an “open secret” that Gizmodo had paid to acquire the device, and that Cupertino considers the unit not lost but stolen. Engadget’s Nilay Patel, a former lawyer, pointed out that in California, the finder of a lost item is required to alert the police and return it to its owner. While these allegations seem to bolster claims of the device’s legitimacy, they also potentially open up some extremely thorny legal issues for all involved.

So, that’s the story. But the question foremost in the minds of many is “is this the fourth-generation iPhone?” It’s impossible to know for sure, but there are a number of possible explanations.

It’s too legit to quit. As strict as Apple’s security procedures are when it comes to unreleased products — iPad development units were kept under lock and key even after the device’s announcement — no system is infallible. And, at the risk of falling back on cliché, truth is often stranger than fiction. There’s certainly a possibility that some Apple employee dropped his prototype iPhone in a bar, where it was retrieved by a random passer-by. And given that this is San Jose, square in the middle of Silicon Valley, it’s not a stretch to presume that the finder would be a tech-savvy individual smart enough to tip off the tech sites.

It’s certainly no surprise to anyone that there would be a new iPhone due in the next few months; Apple’s released a new model of iPhone every summer for the last three years. While the design is a departure from earlier iPhone units, nothing about it screams “outside the realm of possibility” to me, as much as I can say without having handled the device. Plus, the features — front-facing camera, camera flash, and the same microSIM card used in the forthcoming 3G-enabled iPad — fit with what we might expect in a future iPhone update.

As to whether it’s the next iPhone or merely a prototype for the next generation, that’d be difficult to say even with a hands-on.

It’s a trap. Well, not a trap, exactly, but Apple’s PR and marketing is second to none. It’s not impossible that an Apple employee knew precisely where to “leave” this unit to make some buzz. Apple’s been riding high the last few weeks on the iPad launch, iPhone OS 4.0 announcement, and new MacBook Pros — perhaps it wants to keep that streak going.

Some of my colleagues have speculated on various reasons that Apple might choose to leak the device. For example, this might be Apple’s way of getting impressions of the iPhone’s new design. That strikes me as improbable: the company’s approach to design has always been more along the lines of “if we wanted your opinion, we’d give it to you”.

It’s also crossed my mind that this might be a deliberate red herring: a planted leak to throw all the rumourmongers off the track of the actual fourth-generation iPhone. Or worse, a canary trap. That veers a bit into conspiracy theory, but it might not be the first time Apple’s tried that methodology: in 2005, the company sued rumour sites over an unreleased audio product code-named “Asteroid” — a product that was never released, leading some to speculate it was a fake product designed to help find leaks.

In either of those cases, it might be in Apple’s interest to seed different prototypes of iPhones, in order to protect the secrecy of its future products, a task that’s becoming increasingly difficult these days.

The flip-side of that argument is Apple’s penchant for secrecy: surprise is a big part of its product announcements, and if there are no surprises left when the device is officially unveiled, it could take the wind out of Apple’s sails. After all, there’s a difference between whetting your appetite and filling up before dinner.

Furthermore, if the real fourth-generation iPhone surfaces in June without features shown on this prototype, that could spark disappointment. Then again, it may not matter to Apple’s bread-and-butter consumers, who will still just see a faster, newer iPhone.

It’s a hoax. When news of the supposed fourth-generation iPhone first came to my attention on Saturday, I instinctively dismissed it as a hoax — probably one of the many Chinese knock-offs of Apple’s products that float around the grey market. But as the evidence mounted, I re-evaluated that opinion. If it is a hoax, it’s an extremely elaborate one, right down to the branding of the internal components. That doesn’t rule it out, of course, but it does make it increasingly unlikely.

As you might expect, Apple’s said nothing about the story, nor did the company respond to requests for comment. Granted, almost any action it took would merely serve to inform the story further: if it tried to get the unit back, or threatened legal action against Gizmodo or Engadget, it might merely confirm the legitimacy of the device in the eyes of many. Still, the company’s never been shy about legal action in the past, which does add a tick mark in the “intentional leak” column.

The bottom line is that there’s no way to know until Apple actually announces the next iPhone, a move that’s likely still at least six weeks away. But if we spend all of that time talking about the iPhone, then who’s really won?

Tuesday 20 April:

Gizmodo has posted an article on how its prototype iPhone came to be out in the wild. And it’s probably not good news for at least one Apple engineer.

Apparently Gray Powell, who has been working on the iPhone baseband software, lost the phone at Gourmet Haus Staudt in Redwood City, Califoria – not far from Apple’s Cupertino campus. He is said to have left it on a bar stool before going home. This was around a month ago. (Interestingly, Gray Powell is still an Apple employee).

So what happened in the meantime? An un-named stranger picked up the phone and found Gray Powell’s facebook account open in one of the applications. He planned to return it the next morning, but found it had been remote wiped when he woke up. The story is that he tried to ring Apple to let them know the phone was safe and sound, but his calls were never returned.

But we still don’t know how Gizmodo got their hands on the prototype device. “Weeks later, Gizmodo got it,” was the site’s only explanation.

An Associated Press report suggests that Gizmodo’s parent company paid US$5,000 for the phone.

Later that day:

Gizmodo has published a letter it received from Apple regarding the prototype iPhone. Addressed to Brian Lam, editorial director, it reads:

Dear Mr. Lam,

It has come to our attention that GIZMODO is currently in possession of a device that belongs to Apple. This letter constitutes a formal request that you return the device to Apple. Please let me know where to pick up the unit.

Bruce Sewell
Senior Vice President & General Counsel

Well, there you have it. The iPhone in question is a real Apple prototype. It’s still not clear whether we’ll see the same device released in the near future, but I do like where Apple is heading with some aspects of this design (maybe not those seams).

The one thing I’m not convinced about is the “warm, fuzzy, huggy feelings of legal compliance” that Gizmodo is enjoying now that it plans to give back the unit. It all still seems a little fishy to me. And sentiment on the article’s comments thread seems equally unsure. Maybe this whole thing has ruined the June surprises Apple had in store for us.

Is this the end of the iPhone prototype?

Debate continues to rage as to why the iPhone would have been off campus. Our guest blogger Tom Kinsman still thinks it’s all a marketing stunt from Apple.

Meanwhile, the legality of Gizmodo’s actions is being questioned, with John Gruber firmly believing they broke the law in purchasing the device:

If criminal charges are made, and they include charging the editors of Gizmodo with the purchase and receipt of stolen property, they can make whatever arguments they want in their defense. But Gizmodo certainly knew that if it was, in fact, an Apple prototype, that it did not belong to the individuals who were selling it, and that Apple would want it back.

Aside from the letter to Gizmodo, Apple has remained silent on the matter. We’re continuing to follow the story, and will bring you any updates if the legal team at Cupertino decides to take the matter further.

In the meantime, we can sit back and digest what looks to be the biggest leak of pre-released hardware information in Apple’s history, and wonder whether the new iPhone might rear its head again around the middle of the year.

The debate continues here and here on our forums.

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