The iPhone Prototype Conspiracy Report

May 12th, 2010

Yes, it appears to have happened again. There’s a report from the Mac rumor sites (and the  mainstream media) that yet another iPhone 4G prototype has appeared, this one supposedly acquired by a Vietnamese business person while visiting the U.S. So it appears that these prototypes are there for the taking, if you’re lucky, visit the right bars in the Silicon Valley, or have a sufficiently large bank account to acquire a sample. I’ll let the reader consider the possibilities.

Now the details of prototype number two aren’t terribly different from the original. You still have the squared-off rather than curved case, along with some minor refinements that appear to indicate this is a later revision. The photos and text descriptions make it seem real, but again how do you really know, even if the requisite Apple logos are included on some of the parts?

Ahead of the expected revelation of the actual next generation iPhone next month at Apple’s WWDC, I’d rather engage in some purely shoot-from-the-hip speculation here. Obviously I don’t know the actual facts surrounding the recovery of this device and that notorious prototype that was acquired by Gizmodo for $5,000, beyond what has already been published of course.

It’s a sure thing that Apple enforces a tight lid of security on its prototypes, but being a private corporation, you can’t expect them to be able to attain the level of success of, say, the CIA or NSA. And even those worthy agencies sometimes screw up, so you can’t expect Apple to be perfect, or even close.

Even so, you wonder whether the recovery of two iPhone prototypes came at an all too convenient time, because it keeps the forthcoming product in the news. Yes, I realize that the authorities in the Silicon Valley are busy investigating the circumstances under which Gawker Media, publishers of the Gizmodo blog, got ahold of one of those prototypes, and whether any laws were violated.

So let me begin my speculative exercise:

If you watch those TV procedurals such as Law and Order, you’ve no doubt seen how the cops will conduct a sting operation, hoping to snare a suspected criminal. As you know, the agency that initiated the investigation of the Gizmodo affair is a task force known as REACT, short for the Rapid Enforcement Allied Computer Team, on the board of which sits Apple and other major tech companies.

Suppose Apple wanted to uncover the identities of the people who are disclosing the company’s trade secrets to the press, so they stage an incident involving the “accidental” loss of a prototype iPhone to see whether it would simply be returned, or be handed off or sold to the media. To make sure that the culprits are appropriately convinced of its authenticity, Apple uses an early revision of the next generation iPhone, containing a sufficient number of updated parts to survive a routine tear-down and emerge as the real thing.

I realize this comes across as a nasty accusation, and there’d be a potential claim by the defendants in any criminal action about entrapment. If true, it may well be that the second incident, in which the tear-down appeared at a Vietnamese site, involved a similar scheme.

But consider the fact that, although his name has been spread around the globe, there is no indication that the Apple engineer who “lost” his iPhone, Gray Powell, has suffered from the wrath or Steve Jobs or has otherwise had his job terminated. Contrast that to another Apple employee, who allowed Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak — who still works for Apple — to spend two minutes on a prerelease iPad 3G and was fired for his violation of the company’s nondisclosure contract.

While people do make mistakes, and to forgive is surely charity, it doesn’t make sense that an Apple engineer actually lost a significant prototype, which was, in turn, sold off and publicized in the media, yet his job appears intact. I cannot imagine for one minute that Steve Jobs would tolerate such a foolish mistake. There must be consequences.

Now it may well be that Powell has been fired, but, in exchange for a decent severance check, has agreed not to reveal his real employment status until the legal case is resolved. But wouldn’t Apple want to use him to make an example of the company’s deeply-rooted paranoia about the improper or premature disclosure of information about unreleased products?

Sure, it’s possible Apple didn’t want Powell to become a martyr, but they didn’t behaved similarly when it came to that poor fool who dared to allow Woz to briefly handle an unreleased iPad.

I may be all wrong about this. Perhaps the entire episode was the result of an unfortunate mistake. It happens, and maybe Steve Jobs was in a more forgiving mood that day, perhaps realizing that, in the end, Apple got millions and millions of dollars of free publicity and may sell even more iPhones after the next version hits the store shelves.

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7 Responses to “The iPhone Prototype Conspiracy Report”

  1. Robert Pritchett says:

    It certainly keeps the Apple Corp buzz going in competition with such things as off-shore oil spills, left-handed politics and bankster activities.

    I hope the new iPhones don’t have “moisture” sensors in them. I’m ready to join the class-action suite against Apple for the false-positives in the so-called moisture sensor debacle.

  2. dfs says:

    I wish I could think that allegations of deliberate leaks are a bunch of moonshine, but I’m not sure I can. In fact, I can think of other kinds of leaks we’ve seen in the past, coming from sources like component suppliers, that might have been helped along by Apple a little bit. As long as this sort of thing is only done in the interest of generating publicity they are mere fun and games which will be quickly be forgotten as soon as the product hits the shelves. But at least back when Apple had other CEO’s than Steve, I used to get the idea that similar leaks (all those pictures of System 9 floating about on the Web and so forth) might be floated by upper management for the sake of manipulating the price of Apple stock (of which they individually owned large chunks). That presumably would be ethically shady, although I have no idea at what point if any it violates the law or SEC regulations.

  3. Dan Willis says:

    Here’s another conspiracy theory for you.

    What if the back channel of iPhones is about empty? With the droid phone coming on strong (thanks more to a variety of carriers than any great advantage over the iPhone) Apple can’t afford to let the supply dry up, that might drive potential buyers elsewhere. So, what to do? Order another production run of iPhones when you know you won’t be able to sell a fraction of them before the new one comes out? No, that would cost too much. What about pushing up the announcement date? Again, too costly and then what would they showcase at the big show?

    So, how does Apple keep potential iPhone buyers on the line without iPhones to sell them? Easy, get them hyped about the new model. Let’s face it, the leaked iPhones are very sexy and the front facing camera (and the implied video calling) are enough to keep most people waiting. Now all Apple has to do is keep the buzz about the prototype alive until their official announcement. So, when the hype begins to die about the lost iPhone in the beer garden, bam, police investigations begin. Then when that falls out of the news cycle, shazam, a Vietnamese businessman can suddenly buy a prototype from a mysterious seller.

    Frankly Apple couldn’t have orchestrated this better, which makes me think that’s just what they did. We’ll know for sure if, in the coming weeks a mysterious new feature of the prototype suddenly comes to life, propelling the new iPhone back into the news cycle. If I’m right, all Apple has to do is keep their forethcoming iPhone in the public eye for a few short weeks and then they’ll be off an running with the new model.

    Just a thought.

    • Richard says:

      @Dan Willis,

      It is said that there is no such thing as bad publicity, so long as they spell your name right.

      I also think it more than co-incidence that Apple is generating all this “buzz”/free publicity at a time when their competitors are actually shipping product.

      “Boys and Girls, can you say ‘mind games’?”

      Heck, Steve even got the police to kick down some doors for free.

  4. robinson says:

    Say, I just found this iPhone left behind at a Yankees game… when I turned it on and checked preferences it said OS 4.1, iPhone 4G.

    Do you all think that it could be another prototype?

    The video conferencing/chat feature on it is fantastic. The only downside is that the only person I can called is some guy named “Gray Powell”. 🙂

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  6. dfs says:

    Hmm. just the other day I wrote about leaks coming from component suppliers (which are mostly Asian and hence, presumably, untouchable by the long arm of Apple’s legal department). And lo and behold, we have on a Vietnamese site (no, I can’t read Veitnamese either, but we can learn all we need to from the pictures):

    Presumably they got their hands on this because some kind of subcontractor or parts-supplier is Vietnamese. Now, I have never heard of Apple cancelling a contract with one of these outfits as the result of a leak. Have you?

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