The Curious Case of the Lost iPhone Prototype

So this iPhone walks into a bar .... Not really, but read on.

Just when you thought Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) couldn't light up the blogosphere any more than it did with the iPad run-up, the story of a lost iPhone found in a Silicon Valley bar has thoroughly taken over not just the tech blogosphere but even the local news.

The story goes like this: "someone" found the phone -- in a hard plastic clamshell designed to protect the handheld device -- in a bar in either Redwood City, about 15 miles north of Apple's Cupertino campus, or in San Jose, about 10 miles to the south. The story has changed as to the location.

Somehow, this phone found its way to Gizmodo.com, a popular gadgets and electronics site. Gizmodo is owned by Gawker Media, which AppleInsider notes has no problem with paying for story leads. It famously offered a $100,000 bounty for exclusive information on the iPad prior to launch and was scolded by Apple with a cease and desist letter.

In this instance, AppleInsider noted that for a brief period, Gizmodo said the finder of the supposed next-gen iPhone prototype wanted $10,000 for the device, but it was taken down from Gizmodo in later updates. Nick Denton, president of Gawker Media, said on Twitter he plans to disclose how Gizmodo obtained the prototype.

What's now posted is a fairly thorough examination of the phone, inside and out. Editor Jason Chen said that a remote kill signal had been sent, so the phone would not start up, but when connected to a PC, the computer identified the handset as an iPhone.

Next-Gen iPhone Designed for Mobile Computing?

He praised the design, noting a forward-facing camera, larger battery, a micro-SIM card, new control buttons, a redesigned case that makes the back flatter and smoother, and with seams, something atypical of an Apple design. Usually, its phones are nearly impossible to open.

Late Monday, Gizmodo posted a detailed account of how it said the iPhone prototype was lost, identifying Apple software engineer Gray Powell as the employee who lost the device at the Redwood City, Calif. bar.

Silicon Valley Observers React to Mystery Mobile Device

Apple did not return requests for comment. Blogger John Gruber, who runs Daring Fireball, has connections to Apple and said the company considers it stolen and wants it back.

The problem is, notes Rob Enderle, principal analyst with The Enderle Group, if Apple demands it back, that pretty much means it's a legitimate phone. "Apple has the right to ask for it back, but in doing so they confirm it's theirs," he told InternetNews.com.

And Confirm It, Apple Did

Another update: Still later on Monday night, Gizmodo posted a letter signed by Apple's senior vice president and general counsel Bruce Sewell that stated:

"It has come to our attention that Gizmodo is currently in possession of a device that belongs to Apple. This letter constitutes a formal request that you return the device to Apple."

Gizmodo now says that it has confirmation the device is Apple's, and plans to return it.

Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies, said he finds Gizmodo's story surprising if true. "I've never heard of [a prototype] being used and tested outside of the campus. It's hard to understand how this could happen given Apple's cloak of secrecy on product development," he said.

Enderle is willing to believe that the prototype slipped out.

"A lot of people are busy during the final rush before launch, doing five, six, seven things at once, it's easy to have something be left in your pocket and have it fall out," he said. "It's great drama. At the end of the day, does it matter? It's driving page views to their site, God love 'em."

And all this happened about six weeks or so ahead of when Apple is rumored to unveil a new iPhone in June. The latest clue: AT&T has told its employees not to plan on any June vacations. This has happened with previous iPhone launches.

InternetNews.com's West Coast bureau chief, David Needle contributed to this article.

Andy Patrizio is a senior editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.


iPhone, iPad, Apple, Gizmodo, media