The Miraculous Mysterious Engadget iPhone 4G

Either way, this is a great story that illustrates what journalism is like here in the jetboot age. A few hours ago, Engadget posted pictures of…well, something curious. It appears to be an iPhone of a design nobody’s ever seen before.

The thready story accompanying these photos claims that it was found in a bar in San Jose inside an iPhone 3G case. Supposedly it booted up at some point in this little opera but it’s now dark.

Hmm.

Well, there are two possible explanations for why nobody’s ever seen this kind of iPhone before.

Possibility A: It’s either an engineering sample or an actual production sample of a future iPhone…possibly the model that everybody’s expecting Apple to announce this summer. Someone was lucky enough to have their hands on one and was stupid enough to lose it in a bar.

Possibility B: It’s a Chinese counterfeit. It looks enough like an iPhone to pass, but like heavily-accented English, it really looks nothing like the proper original.

I have to get behind the second theory. I can’t believe that anyone this close to the development cycle would be this careless with an unannounced iPhone. I can’t believe that Apple would even let one of these outside of the building. I could believe that someone was able to sneak a photo of such a beast and get it out of the campus. But I can’t believe that such a phone would be completely naked of any sort of paper labels or other tags to identify precisely who would need to be drawn, quartered, and forced to use a Palm Pre for the rest of their lives as punishment for such a breach. I’ve seen plenty of sample hardware months before its release and whether it was a phone, a notebook, or an ebook reader it never looks 100% like a consumer-ready product. Even if the physical design has been finalized, there’s always some sort of paper label or hard engraving somewhere to make it clear that this thing didn’t come from no Best Buy.

And does this even look like an Apple product? Every Apple mobile device — from MacBooks to iPods, with iPhones and iPads in between — belongs to the same style family. To borrow a phrase you sometimes hear from patient art dealers on “Antiques Roadshow” when presented with a $5 thrift-shop Jackson Pollock: either the artist in question used a style, an eye, and materials that he’d never used before in any of his dozens of well-documented works…or else this is a knockoff.

But the big source of my doubt comes from my trip to China last summer. I had only wanted to bring home one specific souvenir: a counterfeit iPhone. I knew that China was the cradle of brilliant forgeries and I managed to pick up something brilliant.

My Chinese iPhone knockoff is on the left. My real iPhone is on the right.

I can point out that the counterfeit is ballsy enough to reproduce the Apple logo and all of the FCC boilerplate you’d find on a real iPhone…so the similar boilerplate on the Engadget phone means nothing.

But it was the experience of shopping for this thing that makes me think this phone is a fake rather than something more exciting. It just looks very, very familiar.

I met two new friends — expats who’d been living in the city for years — who knew precisely where to go and who had the language skills necessary for the negotiations. A fifteen-minute cab ride from my hotel near the Forbidden City took us to the Ladies’ Market; a discreet sign pointed us to a door that led to a vast room that looked like a big permanent flea market.

Name a phone and you could find a counterfeit for sale there. And iPhones were everywhere. Some of them were absolutely perfect. You could even turn it on and get fairly deep into the user interface before your “iPhone” got all open-sourcey on you. It was certainly good enough to fool someone who wasn’t at all experienced with the genuine article.

Many of the phones I saw weren’t nearly as good as the one I eventually bought. It was Heavily Accented Apple. The logo was right, the buttons were right…but it was a flip phone, complete with a very cool MacBook-style illuminated Apple logo. Or the Home button was squared instead of round. Or the back was flat instead of rounded.

I didn’t see anything quite like the “iPhone” that Engadget is showing off. But it looks like the kind of thing I saw there in Beijing.

Toss a genuine iPhone onto the desk of a Chinese electronics manufacturer and say “Build me one of these.” He’ll be thoroughly unimpressed by the sexy curves and buttons. “This would be cheaper to make if it was flat,” he’d say. “And I have some stock switches that won’t require any custom case tooling.” With an eye on the bottom line, plans would move ahead to make something that’s 90% an iPhone, at just 20% of the cost.

That said…well, who the hell knows? Maybe this really is the next iPhone. But I think it’s more likely that the man who lost this “iPhone” might have been Major William Martin of the Royal Marines and not anyone associated with Apple.

27 thoughts on “The Miraculous Mysterious Engadget iPhone 4G”

  1. iPad developers selected to have the device before the shipping date were required to keep it hidden in windowless rooms under lock and key and that was a device we all saw and some people had used. I imagine that design prototypes don’t every leave a select few rooms and working prototypes leave even less. Given the design of the iPad and the iPhone Apple will only remove parts and details from the design, not add new bits and pieces.

  2. I tend to agree with B as well. I can’t see how during the entire development process nobody see’s the thing and then a month before the supposed announcement it is found in public. It seems too convenient. Also, as I have never been to Beijing I can’t verify the validity of your claims on iPhone knock offs. I can attest to the not so apple feeling (looking) device Engadget has splattered on their site. It just doesn’t seem to have the love that Apple products always have.

  3. The weird thing about the FCC boilerplate, though, is that it’s *not* just copying iPhone FCC data–or even trying to look like legitimate data. It’s using filler text (a series of Xes) for variables on the back, like storage capacity and serial numbers. That doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that a Chinese counterfeit operation would do.

    And as far as the design goes… well, aside from the panel breaks, which are incredibly un-Apple, I’d say it looks to be more in line with the Macbook Pro/iPad design language than the current iPhone does.

    At first glance, this seems like some kind of fake. If that’s all it turns out to be, I won’t be surprised. But it’s setting off my weird-ometer. It’s too different to be a good fake, and too interesting to be a bad fake. I’ll be interested to see where this story goes.

  4. You can’t ignore the possibility that the phone is genuine, but from the future – left behind in a bar by some errant time-traveler who had a bit too much to drink. Perhaps there only synthehol in his future, and he wanted to experience the real thing…but wasn’t able to handle it…

    WOO HOO! This means time travel will someday be invented after all!

  5. If you guys look at the article again at engadget, they have pictures up from earlier in the year of a phone just like it. The only thing I can tell that isn’t signature apple is that the backplate comes off to reveal a battery and what looks like a sim card slot.

  6. I find it also hard to believe that this is supposed to be the next iPhone. The visual language is nothing like most other apple products that we have today. The closest would be the iMacs when they still had the black backside. Also .. seams? It must be a very early production prototype.

    One thing I’d like to throw into the room though: It has been rumored on and off over the last years that Apple might come out with an iPhone that has a touch responsive backside. I imagine that if a new iPhone had one of those multitouch backs, it would have to be flat. So if this is anything like the next iPhone my prophecy is that Apple’s only reason to deviate that far from their current product design lines would be a touch back.

  7. The phone in these images looks, well, STOCK to me. It doesn’t scream ‘new design language’ like the next iPhone surely will; the buttons look like something they’d slap Android on, the silver sides look almost ’90s.

    For this reason alone I’m going with the knock-off theory.

  8. I’m surprised it has picked up this much traction. No doubt in my mind it’s a knockoff. What is it that gives people pause? Doesn’t look a bit like Ive’s work.

  9. The problem with the counterfeit theory is that counterfeiters aim to duplicate existing goods with some precision.

    The knock-off merchants aim to precisely duplicate an existing product so that they can sell the fake to people who are fooled into thinking they are getting the genuine article. Or at least sell to people who want to pose.

    Counterfeiters do not take a design, and decide to modify it, improve on it or utterly redesign it. What would be the point?

    My bet this *is* a genuine Apple prototype. And any organisation that employs human beings is prone to a little human style error.

    My second bet is that we are not seeing the whole device. This phone would look a whole lot more Apple-ish with a surrounding and possibly replaceable plastic or rubber shell. This one is naked.

    C

  10. Andy – thanks for that Wiki link to the Major Bill Martin story – fascinating stuff. :-)

  11. It looks like that says 16GB. It seems to me that Apple would hopefully be putting out a 32 and 64GB version of the new iPhone. Or at least that’s the way things have gone so far. Original 4GB & 8GB… 3G 8GB & 16GB… 3Gs 16GB & 32GB.

  12. why would the chinese make something that doesn’t look like an iphone. the point of a knockoff is to fool at first glance.

    those silver buttons (instead of the volume rocker) say VAIO (or Sony, anyway).. but I don’t think this is a Japanese knockoff (@MK) simply because the Japanese are too proud (or principled) to knock anything off. Have we ever know the Japanese to create knockoffs.. why now? the overall form factor reminds me of a clie (http://www.speederbike.com/family/matt/cpu_sony_615c.jpg).

    the “seams” are also very un-apple, but none of the pics show a user accessible SIM slot. both the engadget pics and the twitpics (from Feb) show a pinhole near the headphone jack.. maybe that releases the side to expose a SIM… (and possibly) SD slot (but I doubt it because the part that’s supposed to move covers the buttons, and ringer switch.

    IF this is the next phone, I rather like the look, silver buttons, seams and all. I could see apple using dual buttons instead of the rocker, because it could allow for another hard button option – press both.

  13. One of my acquaintances actually bought an iPhone knockoff two years ago. Removable battery, SD card slot, ran (I think) Windows Mobile with a mutant springboard-ish interface and a bunch of very familiar icons. He knew in advance what he was getting: something that was cheap and totally not an iPhone but could be used with T-Mobile without a data plan. Reception was quite bad, so he ditched it within a month for an HTC G1, the first Android phone.

  14. Flash isn’t cheap enough yet to offer 32GB as the minimum on a phone. The iPad will ditch 16GB before the iPhone does.

    The notion of the iPhone 4 featuring an iPad mini kind of design has been kicked around before, and seems vaguely plausible. But those side buttons are awful (way too far apart), and the seam on the top…why? I’m sure it’s *a* phone that exists somewhere. It’s not a high quality one.

  15. I had the same approach as yours when i saw the engadget pictures: I worked 3 years ago at a mobile carrier and had been working with a lot of handsets and prototypes from sony/nokia/… one particular handset from a chinese company (huahei) was looking exactly the same (buttons, straight edge “sandwiched” between flat screen and back, …) this does not look like what apple got us used to.
    And everybody here seem to forget that a very few people at apple are aware of the final design of the iphone HD. Product managers and developpers are very likely to work with proptotypes that are far from looking like the final products.

  16. Okay, at first i was leaning toward prototype but now away for a few reasons
    1. Apple would only trust this new product with 4 people, Steve Jobs, Phil Schiller, Jony Ive, and Scott Forstall. None of which would be so careless as to misplace something so important
    2. Of all the places you would see these faces with a disguised iPhone 4, a bar would not be one of them.
    3. Finally, knowing Apple, knowing their history of leaked prototypes (none) there is a slim to none chance this is iPhone 4.

    The design itself doesn’t look Apple to me, but personally I’m hoping for a drastic design for Apple 4. Not much has changed from the first 3 iPhones. Do I think this is iPhone 4? Hard to say. The likely-ness of it, again, is very slim. But all we can do is wait…

  17. my girlfriend and i bought an iPhone on her 23rd birthday .. this is really a very cool phone but Nokia would be launching some new phones which are better than the current iPhone model

  18. This just goes to prove that Ihnatko knows absolutely nothing about the internal workings that go on at Apple or what there even working on. To have such a self proclaimed Apple insider/pundit discredit the REAL next generation iPhone as a Chinese knock speaks volumes about his ignorance. Suck it up, Ihnatko – you got played. Get in line with the rest of us prognosticators because you don’t know jack just like the rest of us.

  19. Andy, after bashing the new iPhone 4’s design, which you thought was fake and, by your own words, a counterfeit version made in China, with a flat back to become cheaper in production, you can’t possibly come with a great review later on about the same iPhone 4. You put yourself into a corner by denigrating the iPhone 4’s design, thinking it was an iPhoney. You can’t go back now, buddy, no matter how much spin. If you do that, you’ll lose even more credibility. You’d be doing as much journalism as the paid-for trolls at MSNBC. I won’t even comment about how wrong you were about the inner-works of Apple. Hey, but remember, in a socialist world everybody gets a trophy…even the last place. Too bad Ted Kennedy isn’t alive to give you a nice trophy paid by sober-productive taxpayers.

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