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The Saga of the Lost iPhone 4

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lost iPhone 4
image copyright Apple Inc.

July 24, 2014

Apple has long been famous for its secrecy. It plugged leaks, sued rumors websites, and cancelled promotional opportunities for partners who announced news before Apple was ready—all of which made the saga of the lost iPhone 4 so amazing. In spring 2010, months before the iPhone 4 had even been revealed to the public, let alone before it had gone on sale, a device that was rumored to be a prototype iPhone 4 was discovered in a San Jose, CA, bar. This article recounts the wild and surprising events that followed that discovery, using my coverage of it from that time.

 

April 19, 2010
Over the weekend, a number of Apple and gadget sites posted photos that purported to show the upcoming 4th generation iPhone. The phone shown in the pictures was reportedly found on the floor of a bar in San Jose, CA (near Apple's Cupertino headquarters). The alleged device reportedly contained 80GB of memory, a front-facing camera, a glass or ceramic back cover, and a MicroSIM slot. Though met with substantial initial skepticism, both Engadget and John Gruber, who is very plugged in and has a good track record with these things, now judge that this phone is likely an early testing model and represents many things we'll get out of the next iPhone this summer.


April 19, 2010
Remember that rumored 4th generation iPhone mentioned this morning? Gizmodo's got it (John Gruber reports that they bought it) and confirm that it's the real thing. I expect someone at Apple will be losing a job over this.

Gizmodo has taken the phone apart and posted some details:

  • Has two cameras - one on front, one on back; Also has a camera flash.
  • Screen is higher-res than on 3GS, may be the rumored 960x480 display; Screen is slightly smaller than on 3GS
  • Has MicroSIM slot and a second microphone
  • Back of phone is glass and overall has different design than 3GS, though this case may not be final
  • 3 grams heavier than the 3GS
  • Battery is 16% bigger, which presumably will lead to longer battery life


April 20, 2010
Whether it's definitely the device we'll come to know as the 4th generation iPhone this summer or not, Apple has confirmed that the iPhone prototype unveiled by Gizmodo yesterday is indeed its property.

They did this in a formal letter to Gizmodo, requesting their property back. If it hasn't already happened, Gizmodo is returning the device (which, it turns out, they paid US$5,000 for).

Gizmodo also has an in-depth story of how the prototype was lost (it involves beer).

The fallout from this will be interesting, as it seems likely that there will be no winners here. The engineer who lost the phone may lose his job. Gizmodo may have exposed themselves to legal action for buying a product that they term as "stolen." Apple is taking (unjustified; it's a prototype, guys!) criticism for the design of this version of the phone.

I suspect we haven't heard the last of this.

 

April 27, 2010
Gizmodo's purchase of a lost (or possible stolen) 4th generation iPhone and subsequent publishing of information about the phone has led California police to raid the home of Gizmodo writer Jason Chen and remove a number of computers and peripherals as part of an investigation into the matter, according to a post at Gizmodo.

The search warrant that led to this action, posted at Gizmodo, indicates that police are investigating the matter as a possible felony. This could have to do with the buying of stolen merchandise (or maybe trade secret law, but I'm very far from a lawyer, so we'll have to see how this plays out).

Gizmodo may have gotten a big scoop here, but the consequences could be pretty unpleasant, especially if the police conclude they have enough evidence to pursue charges.

One thing that caught the eye of a few observers: All of Jason Chen's personal information has been obscured in the copy of the search warrant posted by Gizmodo, a courtesy the site didn't offer Gray Powell, the Apple engineer who lost the iPhone. Instead, they posted his name, photo, birthday, Facebook posts, and Flickr feed - none of which were necessary to explain or substantiate the story.

 

Aug. 11, 2010
The District Attorney in San Mateo, CA, has decided not to bring charges against Gizmodo or its staff for their role the found iPhone 4 prototype fiasco from last year. Misdemeanors charges have been brought against the people who "found" the device originally.

 

Aug. 23, 2010
May I be the latest to say hahahaha to this one (and also to say: that's what I get for going into the woods and away from Internet access for the weekend!). Brian Lam, the editor of Gizmodo (which you may remember from the iPhone 4 prototype brouhaha), left his cell phone in a restaurant over the weekend. Unlike what happened when Gizmodo exploited the same mistake by an Apple engineer, a decent person at the restaurant returned the phone to Lam. If only Gizmodo had the same values.

 

And you might think that would be the end of the story, but a year later, another iPhone went missing...

 

Sept. 1, 2011
Not again! I bet most of you will find this as hard to believe as I do, but apparently an Apple employee has lost another iPhone prototype. And done it in a bar once again! This time it appears to be an iPhone 5 prototype lost in a San Francisco bar in late July. And despite efforts by Apple and the SFPD to recover it, nothing's turned up. Seems like Apple ought to institute a new policy that prevents employees from bringing their prototype phones to bars.

 

Sept. 8, 2011
The story of the lost iPhone prototype (presumably an iPhone 5) that I mentioned last week has gotten much, much stranger in the last week.

As you may remember, last week word leaked that another Apple employee left a prototype iPhone in a San Francisco bar and that Apple employees and the SFPD had searched at least one residence in an attempt to retrieve it. That all seems reasonable, yeah? But then this chain of events took place:

It will be interesting to see what comes out of the SFPD investigation and whether Apple has anything else to say about the matter. It's not hard to imagine Apple being particularly vigorous in its search for the missing phone after last year's Gizmodo-led debacle with the iPhone 4. While it's conceivable that vigor to keep the phone from the press could have led Apple staff to overstep their bounds, there's no concrete evidence of that yet. Still, it would be nice to know exactly what happened.

 

Sept. 15, 2011
One of the big iPhone stories of the last few weeks has been the story of another lost iPhone prototype and the odd and murky doings surround attempts to get it back. Last we heard, the SFPD was launching an investigation into what role its officers and detectives played in the investigation.

Since then, though, no word. What's happened? Did Apple ever recover the prototype?

 

And then, to conclude the whole affair, we returned to the original lost iPhone, the one found by Gizmodo in 2010...

 

Oct. 13, 2011
The saga of the "lost" iPhone 4 prototype that Gizmodo purchased prior to the device's announcement last year has ended and no one is going to jail. Gizmodo staff weren't charged, while the men who found and sold the phone each got one year's probation, 40 hours of community service, and ordered to pay Apple $250 restitution. The people who come out of this looking the worst, though, are the Gizmodo staff, whose behavior was described by the San Mateo District Attorney as "like 15-year-old children talking."

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