- The Tech Night Owl — Cutting-Edge Tech Commentary - https://www.technightowl.com -

The iPhone Prototype Conspiracy Report

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.