Home opinion-and-analysis Core Dump Next iPhone out of the bag - accidental loss or a marketing ploy?

It seems that the 'iPhone 4G' found in a California bar may be the real thing. But was it really lost?

Gizmodo has reported that what appeared to be a next-gen iPhone came into its possession after being found in a bar in Redwood City, California.

The device does look like an Apple product, with styling that could be described as a blend of current iPhone and iMac.

Key features are said to include a front-facing camera, an improved main camera (with flash), micro SIM, "seemingly higher resolution" display, and what Gizmodo took to be a secondary microphone for noise cancellation.

The fact that the device worked (not so well after being remotely killed, but it was at least partly functional), among other considerations, led Gizmodo to conclude that "the possibility is almost none" that it was a fake.

A later article described in detail how the iPhone came into Gizmodo's hands, including the name and photo of the Apple employee that 'lost' it at the Gourmet Haus Staudt.

What happened next? Please read on.

Gizmodo subsequently received a letter from Apple senior vice president and general counsel Bruce Sewell, claiming that it was "currently in possession of a device that belongs to Apple" and that it should be returned. Not quite an admission that it was a 2010 iPhone prototype - the word 'iPhone' didn't appear anywhere in the letter - but close enough.

It seems unlikely that Apple would have gone to such lengths to provide complete misinformation (and several of the features had already been bandied about or mentioned in Apple patent applications), so let's go along with Gizmodo's conclusion that it really was a prototype/pre-production sample of the iPhone that's expected to be released in a couple of months or so.

In that case, was the device really lost and found, or was this just a publicity stunt conducted by Apple? Or was the device stolen, as Daring Fireball [warning: link likely to expire] suggested?

Theft is a serious allegation.

Taking at face value Gizmodo's account of how the iPhone was 'lost', the story does seem a little fishy. It's possible that things really happened that way, but I find it almost as easy to believe that such a sequence of events might have been a set up (and I'm not usually prone to conspiracy theories).

After all, if you wanted to 'lose' a preproduction iPhone somewhere that it would most likely recognised for what it was, the San Francisco Bay Area is the place.

But what would Apple's motivation be? Please read on.

For years it has taken a hard-line policy on leaks, following a period in the 1990s where it seemed that the full specs of forthcoming models could be easily obtained from multiple sources within the company.

Some of the last-minute leaks have been a little suspicious in the sense that they help draw attention to the imminent announcement, but once stock is being physically distributed to multiple sites the number of people with access - and therefore potentially able to leak the details - skyrockets. Consequently, it's hard to say whether such disclosures really are engineered by Apple.

Right now, the iPad hubbub has barely died down, and it is still two months to the expected announcement of this year's iPhone.

So on balance, I'm discounting the idea that this was a publicity stunt. My impression is that the phone was in some sense 'lost' - though in the absence of more information I'm keeping an open mind about whether or not 'found' would be a euphemism for the way it came into someone else's hands prior to reaching Gizmodo.

One last point: if you found a phone - any phone - in a bar, what would you do with it? Leave it with the management? Hand it in at the local police station? Use the contact list to try to locate the owner and return it?

Or something else?



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Stephen Withers

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Stephen Withers is one of Australia¹s most experienced IT journalists, having begun his career in the days of 8-bit 'microcomputers'. He covers the gamut from gadgets to enterprise systems. In previous lives he has been an academic, a systems programmer, an IT support manager, and an online services manager. Stephen holds an honours degree in Management Sciences and a PhD in Industrial and Business Studies.


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