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.