The (Increasingly Plausible) Miraculous Engadget (and Gizmodo) iPhone 4G

Okey-doke. I wish to call your attention to my final comment on the supposed iPhone 4G that someone found in a bar in the San Francisco Bay area:

“Who the hell knows? Maybe this really is the next iPhone.”

There have been three developments since I posted that piece late Saturday night:

1) Engadget triumphantly pointed to a blurry partial shape located way off in the corner of a blurry photo of a prototype iPad they published well before the latter’s release. They offered it as conclusive proof that their supposed iPhone 4G was the real deal, and not an Asian knockoff.

I think the only thing it proves is that Engadget was starting to feel the heat and were very, very (VERY) hopeful that they hadn’t just embarrassed themselves.

2) Over on Daring Fireball, John Gruber threw his cautious support behind this prototype, saying that he made a few phone calls and implying that he was able to get information that something like this phone had recently gone rogue in some way or the other.

And this got my full attention. I don’t know Gruber to be desperate for pageviews, nor in my experience has he been the type to be so eager to be “the guy” with a certain story that he wouldn’t perform necessary diligence.

Also — and this bit will become key in a moment — he acknowledges fuzzy areas in the story and tries to fill those gaps by explaining his reasoning, and provided at least a little bit of background on how he reached those conclusions. So this Daring Fireball post carried a lot of weight with me.

Finally,

3) Today, Gizmodo posted a hands-on feature article about this same iPhone 4G.

They claim to have had it for a full week. They weren’t able to boot it past the familiar “Connect to iTunes” screen (which is what you’d see if you’d found an iPhone that had been remote-wiped). They claim that this screen, at least, shows a super-higher-res display. The list of specifications (front-facing camera and better display) is in line with what we’d expect from a new iPhone.

Then they took it apart, and confirmed that it’s filled with Apple components.

Okey-doke. Given that they didn’t say “It has the same guts as an iPhone 3GS,” we have to conclude that this is indeed a rogue Apple iPhone prototype.

Interesting. On a number of levels.

Well, you now know about as much about this device as I do. The only thing I can add to the discussion is the complicated topic of “What are a journalist’s responsibilities with a story like this?”

I didn’t even really bother to look into Engadget’s story. I spent all day Sunday at the MIT Flea Market and frankly, I had better things to do than fire off emails and make a bunch of late-night phone calls to check into a story that looked like every other vague “ZOMG!!!! TOP-SECRET HARDWARE PROTOTYPE!!!!!!!” piece I’ve ever seen.

Instead, I wrote about what I thought about the story…chiefly because the phone looked like a knockoff and the story gave me the chance to get out my own counterfeit iPhone and talk about that subject for a bit.

My final opinion was incorrect but my thinking was spot-on. There’s a difference between a counterfeit (like my fake iPhone 3G) and a mere knockoff. A knockoff isn’t sold with the intent that it’ll survive side-by-side scrutiny. It’s there to fulfill someone’s desire to have something like the real thing. It’s aimed at the classic globalization fanboy: it’s not the features that they want…it’s the logo.

And this Apple prototype does indeed look like a knockoff. Remember what I said about the “design brief” of a knockoff? Every design choice is the answer to the question “How can we redesign this to make it way, way less expensive to manufacture?” This prototype is full of flat surfaces — easy as pie to fabricate — and studded with round switches that can be installed without any custom tooling.

The innards of this prototype appear to be genuine, based on Gizmodo’s dissection. But I still have some doubts about the case. This could be just a “carrying around” design, built to give the innards shape and form for human testing. It’s possible that Apple never had any intention of using it as the design of the actual consumer product. “We just need to slap this in an iPhone-like case so that we can test the electronics” is another reason to choose an “easy and cheap to build” design.

(Admittedly, “What changes can we make to increase Apple’s profits?” is another reason for “easy and cheap to build.”)

So what would I have done if this device had fallen into my hands and I were convinced it was genuine?

Honestly, I have no idea. I have obligations to my readers. I also have obligations to the concept of fair play.

I think the driving element for my decision would have been the fact that I’ve never really been interested in breaking a news story. The payoff for the reader is minimal with a story like this. Despite getting their hands on the phone months ahead of schedule, Gizmodo’s story is merely “Apple’s new phone will have a radical redesign and its big features are a front-facing camera and a vastly-improved screen. Which we all pretty much knew anyway.

But how well does all of this work? What are the tradeoffs of these new features? Is it worth the money for the upgrade? Does it change the nature of the device?

Et cetera. That’s what drives me. “Get there first” sites like Gizmodo and Engadget are doing important work, too; I’m not denigrating what they do. It just happens to be work that doesn’t particularly interest me.

Plus, I’d be gravely concerned about how I’d come into possession of this phone. Gizmodo’s story is very, very fishy and they need to be far more open about the provenance of the device.

Right now, they’re sticking to the story that

Step One: This phone was lost in a Redwood City bar;

Step Two: (nervous cough);

Step Three: They got it last week.

They need to fill us in about Step Two. A reader isn’t going to assume that it turned up in the mail one day in a padded mailer with no return address accompanied by an unsigned note reading “Big fan of the site, thought you’d be interested in this” printed in Comic Sans.

Did Gizmodo pay somebody for this phone?

Was this phone actually found in a bar? Or was it stolen from the Apple campus?

The second-most-serious question: did somebody steal it from the Apple campus with the intent of selling it to a news site?

The single most serious question: was Gizmodo in any way responsible for the theft of an Apple prototype?

These are all reasonable questions. Gizmodo really needs to address them.

What about Engadget’s piece on Saturday? I dunno. It doesn’t seem unlikely that they got wind of Gizmodo’s Monday feature story and decided to translate the thin information they had into pageviews while their photos still had some commercial value. The fact that they had clean, clear photos also invites me to wonder if the — let’s call him “The Lucky Bar Patron Who Found The Phone” — set up a little bidding war, and the photos were merely the overture to a financial battle that Engadget ultimately lost.)

I’m a little bit immune from this sort of stuff. Like I said, I’m not in the Shocking Breaking News business. In the end, I try to do what’s best for my readers. I once asked a VP an innocent series of questions that gave me a suspicion; a single leading follow-up question inspired him to blab that his software company was about to be bought by a Well-Known Industry Titan. Have you seen a face literally go ashen before? We were on the record and we both knew instantly that he’d just ****ed himself and his company.

But it wasn’t information that was going to be useful to my readers. Moreover, the collateral damage to this man and his company would have been major, and I have a conscience. So I reproached him a little and told him that I was retroactively taking that statement off the record. Which is technically not something journalists are supposed to do, but what the hell.

(This is why there’s often a third party in the room at all times during a briefing or a Q&A. Smart agents can flash a warning to the client before they say something they shouldn’t…and if it gets out anyway, they can start doing damage control immediately.)

Beyond the idea of not wanting to harm people needlessly, there’s also the ever-present worry that I’ve just become a pawn in a complicated game of internal company politics.

Oh, yes, I have stories about that as well. During Apple’s dark ages before Steve Jobs’ return, infighting and backstabbing inside Apple had reached telenovela levels. I frequently received anonymous leaks about how a certain Apple product was way behind schedule, or how a much-touted software strategy was losing currency inside the company and was probably going to be abandoned. I’d investigate this tip independently and would sometimes discover that the source of the leak was an Apple manager who wanted another manager out of their way, or who wanted to absorb that other project’s budget and personnel.

And then there are the leaks that are so flashy that I immediately suspect a Canary Trap. If you suspect that one of your employees is a blabbermouth, you hand him exclusive and eye-catching disinformation and swear him to secrecy. You fire him the moment you Google for “Dell is getting into the cybernetic laser attack duck business” and get more than zero hits.

Canary Traps are easier to spot, though: they fall apart as soon as you perform a little diligent legwork to confirm the details on your own.

Let’s get back to my original question: what would I have done?

We’ll never know for sure. But I suspect that I would have thought very hard and then gone with my first impulse: return the phone to Apple. If it’s been stolen, then Apple is the victim of a crime and the ethical answer is to side with the victim.

(Given that this is a new smartphone and not a mechanism for electrocuting any iPhone user who attempts to jailbreak their device.)

If I was told that this phone had been found in a bar…I would have assumed that it had been stolen from Apple. Same result.

And if the “finder” wanted some sort of fee for this device, then I would have brought law enforcement into the discussion. That kind of situation is so shady that no journalist with an ounce of sense would come anywhere near it. Even if you could get past the professional ethical dilemma and your ethical dilemma as a human being…look, smart people aren’t confused about how to react when someone tries to hand them a knife wrapped in a torn and bloody UPS uniform and asks them to hide it for a couple of weeks. I don’t mind these problems that you have to discuss with your editor. But I try to avoid the sort of problems that result in a conversation with a criminal defense attorney.

So. I say once again that Gizmodo has a lot of explaining to do. Even if they’re completely innocent of any wrongdoing, they need to resolve this part of the story.

175 thoughts on “The (Increasingly Plausible) Miraculous Engadget (and Gizmodo) iPhone 4G”

  1. Gizmodo should be charged with receiving stolen property which they knowingly paid for. it was an especially dick move to name the Apple engineer.

  2. Here is the ACTUAL story of who lost the phone – how he lost the phone – how the person who found the phone, found the phone, and what Apple has to say about all of this. http://ow.ly/1AMl6

    End of story

  3. Wow you’re all so lost in space, both the people commenting and the person that wrote this article.

    Gizmodo already revealed they paid $5000 for the said iPhone 4G and bought it off the person that supposedly found it. Gizmodo and Engadget owe no explanations to anyone except Apple if anything.

    Seriously, do you really have your panties that much in a bunch that you’re really crying about how they acquired the phone, real or not? What does it matter to you if they reveal anything else or not?

  4. Well Andy, now that we know it’s not stolen but indeed lost at Gourmet Haus Staudt in Redwood City, CA by Apple employee Gray Powell, by the fact that Mr. Powell confirmed the story in a phone call to Gizmodo and the fact that Apple sent a letter to Gizmodo asking for it’s property back, has your opinion of Gizmodo and Engadget or that the phone might be a fake changed in any way? One thing I know for certain, thanks to Gizmodo, today’s (4/20/10) MacBreak Weekly is a must listen.

  5. Wow, all of you are so full of yourselves. What exactly do all of you know about journalism? All I read was a digression.

  6. Fascinating to see so many people to long for less publicly available information, more secrecy, and more leverage for companies to control the press.

  7. @Proesterchen – no, its people expressing distaste for tabloid journalism, and gross profiteering from someone’s misfortune, as opposed to doing the right thing, which is to turn in lost/stolen property. not to sell it to a tabloid.

  8. If you think readers aren’t interested in reading about the new iPhone as soon as possible you’re out of your mind.

  9. The only issue that I have with the entire situation is with Gizmodo “outing” this guy who lost his phone. Clearly Apple knew who lost their phone, and had known for at least a month. But outing him to the entire world might not have been the nicest move in the world. But then again, it is possible that he didn’t care that he was outed.

  10. Andy,
    Another new fan of your blog based largely on your integrity shown here.

    I wanted to offer one explanation why this story came out the way it did, and why I think Gawker/GIZ will ultimately be in the clear – I think they cut a deal with apple to disclose external details (front camera, the bar story) but did not publish any of the internal comments outside of a single photograph, which only shows it wasn’t a knockoff. Ifixit and many others could likely demonstrate additional capabilities of the phone with chip numbers, whether or not it had an A4 processor, etc. Apple may have agreed on a set of photographs and approved details in exchange for the prototypes’ return. It sounds like they had about a week to figure this out. From Apple’s perspective, this modestly reduces the impact of the leak and generates buzz for an apple product. I could see these things being more valuable to Apple than the negative publicity associated with sicking the legal team after a popular blog.

  11. Err, Andy …

    Didn’t you come into possession of a ‘lost’ Apple email account that led to you being sent content meant for an Apple employee back in the day? And, did you ignore these mails and let Apple know you were receiving internal company information, or use said content to give your career a helping hand?

    You certainly boasted of the latter being the case when I saw you speak a few years back.

    Just sayin’

  12. Nice to hear you would have returned to phone. Comparing ethical standards to Gizmodo is like comparing yourself to Idi Amin or Saddam Hussein. Anyone has standards which are 5000% higher. Anyone doing what Gizmodo did doesn’t have half a rain. This has backfired on them. Lots of page views for a few days but a reputation for being unethical douchebags which do anything for pageviews.

    Returning the phone directly to Apple, perhaps after buying it or stealing it which is probably what they did, would have been FAR better for Gizmodo in the short and long run.

    Andy, you have in the past shown every now and then that you are not nearly as ethical as you claim. No need to go overboard, the Apple email account is a good example and there are many more. You too like to abuse things when they suit you but pretend like you are Mother Teresa. I reflects very poorly on you.

  13. I call the claims that Apple ignored the “finder’s” attempts to return the phone completely bogus. You walk in and tell the receptionist “I think I may have found a prototype and I’d like to make sure it gets returned” and you get ignored? Don’t believe it for a minute. I’m betting it was a phone call saying something like “I found an iPhone in a bar and I thought I should call Apple to return it” for plausible deniability: “Hey, I called Apple and told them I had this phone, and they weren’t interested.”

    You want a response?
    To: steve@apple.com
    From: noididntstealit@whatgivesyouthatidea.com

    Dear Steve, I think I found a prototype iPhone. Can I bring it over?

    Hugs,

  14. Thank you for your journalistic and personal integrity. You are my favorite journalist, Andy. Bravo!

  15. @Anon – The story of the AppleLink email account. Back in the early Nineties, one of the perqs of the Apple Developer Program was an AppleLink account. As a developer, this was your primary means of communication to get developer materials and support. Apple also used it as their corporate mail system.

    The paper form had three spaces to request a specific account name. I asked for “andy.” I expected that it was already taken and that I’d get one of my other two choices (“andyi” or “ihnatko”).

    Well! Imagine my surprise when I was assigned “andy.” Cool, I thought.

    Over the next few weeks, I’d occasionally get an email without any real substance to it that had been bulk-sent to a number of people. These emails were so infrequent and so random that it took me a little while to figure it out: “andy” must have been available at the time because it had been used by some mid-level Apple executive in Europe who had left the company.

    I tried pretty hard to straighten it out. I sent emails to everyone else who’d been CC’ed, I contacted AppleLink, I even talked to some dude on the phone. In the end, I sort of gave up. It’s not as though I was getting daily message traffic intended for the CEO. I did take the precaution of generating hardcopy of all of my requests to have the problem fixed and all of AppleLink’s replies, and sending a copy of it all to myself via registered mail.

    I think my tale at whatever user group I told the story to might have grown in your memory. As I recall, the only substantive things I ever got from that source were reminders that the Pink OS was still late with no hope of any future release (or was it Copland?) which was hardly news. I’m certain that these emails gave me added confidence when publishing the basis of my opinions about the OS, but I don’t recall any time when one of these emails sourced a column.

    That said, it’s not something I I’d be comfortable with doing today. Back then, the obvious solution didn’t occur to me: after exhausting every avenue to get the problem fixed, I should have just written a column about it. This would have been such a high-profile thing that somebody would have definitely changed the corporate address books, or assigned me a new ID or something. As it was, my reaction wasn’t “Oboy!” but a resigned shrug.

  16. Legally, they (Gizmodo) had no right to disassemble it. Period

    The argument about it being like a dog taken to the vet for read of the microchip is just plain ridiculous.

    Having opened and photographed proprietary intellectual property of another is more like finding a horse, thinking it’s a winning thoroughbred like Seattle Slew, jacking some sperm and then sterilizing the horse for Pete’s sake.

    Photographic yes. Turn it on… maybe. Try to sync it? Nope. Disassemble it? No way!

    Now add to that the “finders fee” that they paid somebody and you’ve got something called “profit” motivation

    If I were Apple, even though I got back the unit, I’d sue the pants off Gizmodo / Engadget. They went too far.

    Sorry but Gizmodo, as much as I like them, violated some laws and decency here. They could have gotten by with some nice little preview and exclusive but had to go that extra distance and open up the thing.

    I’ll be waiting to see what Apple does next ;)

  17. I will reiterate that I like Andy’s journalism. But, I watched MacBreak Weekly yesterday and when asked about whether he liked the design, he refused to answer the question. I kind of found that a little “weak” on Andy’s side. He already said that the phone looked like a cheap prototype. At least Alex & Leo manned up and gave an opinion. I just get the feeling that Andy doesn’t want to go any further one way or the other for fear of some sort of Apple reprisal.

    It was a simple question, do you like the prototype design? Personally, I like the 3G style better than this one. But, I don’t hate this design.

  18. Apologies if this has already been discussed (lots of comments) but it is entirely possible that Apple’s PR team were looking for a new way to generate buzz about an upcoming product. Hey, here’s a good one… we’ll “misplace” a prototype at a bar – blame it on the cool hipster engineer that drinks beers in bars after work. Give the piece to Gizmodo… boom… instant buzz. I think it was completely thought out and intentional from step 1. The first thing I thought of when I heard the story… man, this type of PR stunt is getting old.

  19. Andy-

    Great piece, and I totally agree that there is something not quite right about this whole scenario. I am happy to hear that you would have returned the iPhone, as would have I, and I think it horrible that Gizmodo felt they to expose this to the public rather than doing the “right” thing. I cannot even fathom wanting to expose and ruin an employee for a possible mistake (if it really even was his error), nor feeling like I had to “rain on someone else’s parade” — Apple’s in this case. I think what Gizmodo did is totally disrespectful and sophomoric behavior, in addition to illegal….

  20. Hi Andy,
    What giz guys did was so amateurish and low low class, to take the phone apart and take pictures of it and then publish it not all that was wrong but asking apple to write to them a letter to show it to people was the second wrong thing to do
    My question to those GIZ guys is this : imagine you and your wife took some private photos of yourselves in some very private position and somehow after picking up those printed photos you by accident leave it at the restaurant that you had dinner at … would you like that the person who finds it (most likely the boss boy)
    #1: sell it to someone some net guy to get it published OR
    #2: sit and look at all photos and make it PUBLIC
    #3: also find the owners phone# call them ask them to publicly identify themselves so everyone will know who you are ….
    OR you plainly return that package without looking any further in that envelope to their rightful owner and keep your mouth shut ?
    I really want to know that hey GIZ guy , i don’t wish you lose your private photos or films that you took with your wife or fiancee’ but if you do ……… try to understand what you did here …
    Regards
    Hamid.Z

  21. i’ve heard you on mac break weekly today, you and messers laporte, mann and lindsay and it’s been a long time since i’ve heard a bunch of people so full of them selves so high & mighty on their horses, so shining in their armor so happy to identify themselves with a corporation outside fox news.

    there was no need for gizmodo to name the guy who lost it, but other than that it’s all in the game and it’s not as if apple has such deep respect of the law when it benefits them.

  22. i love how someone who has ethics and Integrity and will not bow down to the lowest common denominator to be the first to get the story. i love you on MBW and love your work for the sun times you are the only tech journalist i know is unbiased and lives by journalism’s ethics.

  23. I have no clue why yahoo sent me to your site but I feel I should say I have been certainly intrigued by the information you have patched together. How many month did it take to end up with so many users to your blog pages? I am pretty new to this web site stuff.

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