A next-generation Apple "iPhone 4G" prototype? Left on the floor of northern California bar? Traded, photographed, and disassembled by tech gossip sites for all the Web to see? It sounds more Erin Brockovich than Apple.
But that very storyline has played out over the last two days, with the emergence of pictures and video of what is thought to be a preproduction version of the world's most popular smart phone. What's most surprising: that it's Apple at the center of this storm.
The company is famous for the control it exhibits. Its products, the iPod, iPad, and iPhone, are walled gardens, relying on proprietary software and guarded by guidelines that at times are accused of being overreaching.
Product announcements, too, occur within a controlled environment, away from the trade shows, at media events choreographed by CEO Steve Jobs and designed to drum up maximum media hype.
Even more firm: the iron grip Apple keeps on unannounced products.
The iPad, out last month, was reportedly kept under glass and bolted to a table so it wouldn't walk away while developers worked on it before its release. When Gawker Media in January offered a $100,000 bounty for evidence of the as-yet unreleased Apple tablet (later revealed as the iPad), Apple was quick to defend its intellectual property, sending a cease-and-desist letter.
In perhaps the most extreme case of the company's culture of secrecy, last summer saw the apparent suicide of a worker for Chinese iPhone manufacturer Foxconn after one of the iPhone prototypes he was tasked with sending to the US never arrived.
So it was with shock and skepticism that tech watchers digested news of the discovery of what could be the next iPhone model. Spotting an Apple product in the wild before its release is so uncommon – and the market of spoofed photos so saturated – that initial reaction leaned toward the device pictured Saturday night on Engadget being a Chinese iPhone knock-off.
But when rival site Gizmodo Monday morning posted more photos, video, and details of the device's innards, the clamor turned to how such a leak could happen – and whether the "lost" iPhone being passed around could be considered stolen.
John Gruber, a seasoned Apple watcher who writes at Daringfireball.net, responded to reports that Gizmodo's parent company, Gawker, paid for access to the iPhone prototype: "Consider that if the device was truly lost by mistake, [Gizmodo has] cost at least one person their career. And if the device was not lost but stolen… well, the story behind this unit is almost certainly more interesting than the device itself. And the device is fascinating."
Gawker Editor Nick Denton, along with confirming that his company will engage in what he calls "checkbook journalism" – paying for exclusives – has promised a story on how Gizmodo came to acquire the device.