Apple screwed up handling iPhone Gizmo-gate

Apple is partly to blame for how its iPhone prototype was lost and how it handled its recovery.

It appears the saga of the lost (or stolen) iPhone prototype is drawing to a close. Tech blog Gizmodo, which paid US$5000 for an unreleased, next-gen iPhone and then posted a detailed preview of the handset, now reports it has returned the device to Apple. Since Cupertino's legal sharks requested in writing that Gizmodo return the iPhone, there's little doubt the handset is the real deal.

The result? Well, the world won't top spinning, but Apple may decide to make Gizmodo's life miserable with some sort of nasty legal action. Perhaps more importantly for Apple, the big reveal may curtail the media hype that will accompany the new iPhone's summer launch.

In fact, the next-gen iPhone has already lost much of its mystery, if not its allure. Thanks to Gizmodo's scoop--ethically questionable or not--we already know what the new iPhone will look like, even though many of its finer attributes remain unknown.

Apple Botched It

Apple's most rabid enthusiasts will no doubt vilify Gizmodo for the iPhone leak, but based on what we know about the incident thus far, it appears that Apple had a chance to quash the story--or at least limit the damage-- and blew it.

Gizmodo reports that after an Apple engineer left the iPhone prototype in a bar on March 18, another patron found the device, which ultimately found its way into the hands of a tech-savvy individual who recognized the iPhone's unique attributes. This personal then attempted to return the device to Apple by phoning the company's contact and support numbers, but his efforts were unsuccessful.

To be fair, low-level support personnel at any company aren't exactly privy to details about hush-hush, unannounced products. If you're a support rep, and you receive a call from someone claiming to have a top-secret Apple product in his possession, you'd probably assume he's a crackpot. (In fact, an unnamed Apple rep told Gizmodo that's pretty much what happened.)

The other possibility is that word of the missing iPhone did reach Apple management, which chose to ignore the incident, hoping it would blow over. In this scenario, no one would sell the phone to a tech blog, and nobody would be the wiser. If the press found out, Apple could issue plausible denials for a few weeks until the iPhone's summer launch.

Don't Talk Or Else

Tales of Apple's over-the-top secrecy are legendary. According to recent reports, developers earlier this year had to keep their iPads tied to a stationary object in a room with blacked-out windows. And stories of the company's paranoia, including an in-house "loyalty team" that ferrets out leaks, have surfaced in the past. Who knows, perhaps a more open Apple, one where the company's support reps would be more inclined to report potentially lost or stolen gear to their supervisors, could have stopped the Gizmodo leak.

A more open Apple could've simply taken the phone back and said "thanks." But doing so would have been an admission that the device was, in fact, property of Apple. And Cupertino doesn't discuss its unreleased products--ever.

Now, I know that some of you will accuse me of blaming the victim. But the fact is that Apple had an opportunity to plug the leak. Its paranoia contributed to a corporate culture that prevented it from doing so.

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Jeff Bertolucci

PC World (US online)
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