Alleged next-generation iPhone triggers sound and fury

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It’s just another example of why you should never step away from the Internet, even for a moment. Over the weekend, reports of a fourth-generation iPhone prototype found in a bar produced almost as much hot air as Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano. Whether or not it's real is almost moot at this point, but one thing’s for sure: it's certainly got everybody talking.

The story thus far

It began with a Saturday afternoon post on tech blog Engadget, which claimed that a mysterious iPhone-like prototype had been found in a Silicon Valley-area bar. The device in question had apparently been cleverly nestled inside of a case that, to all outward appearances, made it look like an iPhone 3GS. While the unit itself was apparently not booting by the time the story ran, it had reputedly been seen running a pre-release version of the iPhone OS before that point.

A later update to the post pointed out a post on Twitter from earlier this year displaying a photos of a similar-looking unit, including pictures of internals. Daring Fireball’s John Gruber at first weighed in skeptically, as did Macworld contributor Andy Ihnatko, but by the next day, Gruber had changed his tune, based on new information:

So I called around, and I now believe this is an actual unit from Apple — a unit Apple is very interested in getting back. I am not certain that this looks like the actual production unit Apple intends to ship to consumers. I think it’s a testbed frame — thicker, with visible (un-Apple-like) seams, meant to fit in 3GS cases so as to disguise units out in the wild.

Engadget later posted a picture that it claimed confirmed the story, showing a similar-looking unit accompanying a picture of an iPad prototype. The picture originated prior to the iPad’s announcement in January.

On Monday morning, rival tech site Gizmodo posted a lengthy story on the device, which it claimed to have acquired a week ago. The accompanying photos and video show a markedly different design from previous iPhone models, including a flat back, high-resolution screen, separate volume buttons, a larger camera lens with a flash, a front-facing camera, a second microphone, and an aluminum finish around the edge of the unit. They also claimed to be able to get it to display the “Connect to iTunes” screen and verified in iTunes, Xcode, and OS X’s System Profiler that it reported itself as an iPhone.

The plot thickened with a followup post by Gruber on Monday, which said it’s an “open secret” that Gizmodo had paid to acquire the device, and that Cupertino considers the unit not lost but stolen. Engadget’s Nilay Patel, a former lawyer, pointed out that in California, the finder of a lost item is required to alert the police and return it to its owner. While these allegations seem to bolster claims of the device’s legitimacy, they also potentially open up some extremely thorny legal issues for all involved.

The unusual suspects

So, that’s the story. But the question foremost in the minds of many is “is this the fourth-generation iPhone?” It’s impossible to know for sure, but there are a number of possible explanations.

It’s too legit to quit. As strict as Apple’s security procedures are when it comes to unreleased products—iPad development units were kept under lock and key even after the device’s announcement—no system is infallible. And, at the risk of falling back on cliché, truth is often stranger than fiction. There’s certainly a possibility that some Apple employee dropped his prototype iPhone in a bar, where it was retrieved by a random passerby. And given that this is San Jose, square in the middle of Silicon Valley, it’s not a stretch to presume that the finder would be a tech-savvy individual smart enough to tip off the tech sites.

It’s certainly no surprise to anyone that there would be a new iPhone due in the next few months; Apple’s released a new model of iPhone every summer for the last three years. While the design is a departure from earlier iPhone units, nothing about it screams “outside the realm of possibility” to me, as much as I can say without having handled the device. Plus, the features—front-facing camera, camera flash, and the same microSIM card used in the forthcoming 3G-enabled iPad—jibe with what we might expect in a future iPhone update.

As to whether it’s the next iPhone or merely a prototype for the next generation, that’d be difficult to say even with a hands-on.

It’s a trap. Well, not a trap, exactly, but Apple’s PR and marketing is second to none. It’s not impossible that an Apple employee knew precisely where to “leave” this unit to make some buzz. Apple’s been riding high the last few weeks on the iPad launch, iPhone OS 4.0 announcement, and new MacBook Pros—perhaps it wants to keep that streak going.

Some of my colleagues have speculated on various reasons that Apple might choose to leak the device. For example, this might be Apple’s way of getting impressions of the iPhone’s new design. That strikes me as improbable: the company’s approach to design has always been more along the lines of “if we wanted your opinion, we’d give it to you.”

It’s also crossed my mind that this might be a deliberate red herring: a planted leak to throw all the rumormongers off the track of the actual fourth-generation iPhone. Or worse, a canary trap. That veers a bit into conspiracy theory, but it might not be the first time Apple’s tried that methodology: in 2005, the company sued rumor sites over an unreleased audio product code-named “Asteroid”—a product that was never released, leading some to speculate it was a fake product designed to help find leaks.

In either of those cases, it might be in Apple’s interest to seed different prototypes of iPhones, in order to protect the secrecy of its future products, a task that’s becoming increasingly difficult these days.

The flip-side of that argument is Apple’s penchant for secrecy: surprise is a big part of its product announcements, and if there are no surprises left when the device is officially unveiled, it could take the wind out of Apple’s sails. After all, there’s a difference between whetting your appetite and filling up before dinner.

Furthermore, if the real fourth-generation iPhone surfaces in June without features shown on this prototype, that could spark disappointment. Then again, it may not matter to Apple’s bread-and-butter consumers, who will still just see a faster, newer iPhone.

It’s a hoax. When news of the supposed fourth-generation iPhone first came to my attention on Saturday, I instinctively dismissed it as a hoax—probably one of the many Chinese knock-offs of Apple’s products that float around the gray market. But as the evidence mounted, I reevaluated that opinion. If it is a hoax, it’s an extremely elaborate one, right down to the branding of the internal components. That doesn’t rule it out, of course, but it does make it increasingly unlikely.

All quiet on the Apple front

As you might expect, Apple’s said nothing about the story, nor did the company respond to Macworld’s request for comment. Granted, almost any action it took would merely serve to inform the story further: if it tried to get the unit back, or threatened legal action against Gizmodo or Engadget, it might merely confirm the legitimacy of the device in the eyes of many. Still, the company’s never been shy about legal action in the past, which does add a tick mark in the “intentional leak” column.

The bottom line is that there’s no way to know until Apple actually announces the next iPhone, a move that’s likely still at least six weeks away. But if we spend all of that time talking about the iPhone, then who's really won?

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