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Tale of lost Apple iPhone prototype gets weirder

That next-generation iPhone that somehow disappeared in a Bay Area bar before surfacing in a story on the Gizmodo tech-news site is now on its way back to Apple.

The questions about this device's adventures may take a while longer to answer.

Start with Gizmodo's how-we-got-this-thing post from Monday evening. The piece relates how an Apple engineer named Gray Powell spent a night at a Redwood City, Calif., beer garden (for what it's worth, Yelp's users highly endorse the place) and then forgot to grab the device when he left.

Another patron found the phone but didn't think to hand it over to the bar's staff--the polite thing to do in this situation. Instead he played with the gadget long enough to see Powell's Facebook page, then took the device home intending to contact the owner the next morning. But in Gizmodo's recounting, it had been remotely wiped by then (a feature of Apple's MobileMe service), after which Apple ignored the unnamed finder's attempts to return the phone.

Gizmodo's story includes biographical details and photos of Powell, apparently taken from his Facebook and Flickr pages. It does not, however, mention that the New York-based site paid the finder of the phone $5,000 for it, something reported separately by the Associated Press and the New York Times.

Late Monday night, another Gizmodo post reported that Apple had asked for the device back, and that the site was complying with the request.

Meanwhile, I'm still trying to process the idea of an Apple employee carrying around unsecured, unreleased hardware, given what I know about that company's habits of secrecy.

I know a guy who used to be a developer at Apple, and last summer I ran into him while he was carrying around an older iPhone with an upcoming version of the iPhone's software--a release that Apple had already publicly demonstrated. He explained that management had required him to set the phone to request an unlock passcode every time the screen shut off.

I've also heard about the remarkable security restrictions Apple imposed on early recipients of the iPad--according to a BusinessWeek story, lucky developers had to store it "in a room with blacked-out windows" and keep it "tethered to a fixed object."

And yet: Things happen. Mistakes are made. I know this because I had three items of review hardware disappear on my watch years ago. One vanished off my desk at work, and two were lost inside a stolen bag. (The Post cut a check for the first item, on the vendor's request; the other two companies forgave the loss.)

I enjoy watching others extract information from uncooperative companies and try to do the same myself. But after reading Gizmodo's creepy outing of Powell, isn't it hard to take too much joy from this escapade?

Or... do you, like some, think this lost device was some sort of decoy that doesn't represent the next iPhone, and which Apple meant to have show up online?

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By Rob Pegoraro  |  April 20, 2010; 10:35 AM ET
Categories:  Mobile , The business we have chosen  | Tags: Apple, Facebook, Gray Powell, IPad, MobileMe, iPhone, iPhone 3G  
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Comments

"AP... Apple has announced that engineer Gray Powell will be opening their new store in Nome, Alaska, the first Apple Store north of the Arctic Circle."

Posted by: wiredog | April 20, 2010 11:17 AM | Report abuse

I have thought from the beginning that the gadget is a decoy or possibly just a test model instead of a final design. That is an ugly phone by Apple's typical standards.

Posted by: LBinVA | April 20, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

I smell someone's marketing division......

Posted by: nonsensical2001 | April 20, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

decoy?

How about free press coverage?!?

Doesn't that sound just a tiny bit more likely?

Lost? or "lost" that is the question

Posted by: docwhocuts | April 20, 2010 11:57 AM | Report abuse

It seems to me that any of these ideas is certainly palatable, except that aren't phones, especially the expensive smart phones, or even more precisely, test-bed-Apple-unreleased-smart-phones kind of like a woman's purse? When was the last time any woman EVER forgot her purse?

Publicity plant or not, we can only wonder. It will be interesting to see just what Apple WILL release when the Iphone update comes out.

Posted by: henwin | April 20, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse

Henwin, you can't be serious. A young (27) geek-engineer celebrating his birthday gets drunk (his last Facebook post was "German beer is far better than I expected") and forgets his phone - come on, this isn't exactly unheard of.

I know conspiracy theories are all the rage but for this to be a deliberate publicity stunt.....it's too much, even for Apple. I think it's exactly what it appears to be, and frankly it's unbelievable how much press it's getting, I mean if any other phone prototype - ANY - had been lost and found like this, it wouldn't have been news. I mean, this thing isn't even that special, it's just the third version of the iPhone in as many years. News at 11!

The guys at Gizmodo, btw, are a bunch of giant jerks, putting the phone up online is one thing, but revealing the guys name was a cheap shot. His career at Apple is going to suffer enough, assuming he still has one, but at least it would have been contained to Apple. Now every tech company in the world is going to know him as the dude who got drunk and lost Apple's phone. Did they really need to screw with his career like that?

Posted by: Ixian | April 20, 2010 12:49 PM | Report abuse

This is a complete publicity stunt, and naturally the media play along because they don't have anything better to do.

Posted by: MagicDog1 | April 20, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

Nome, Alaska is South of the Arctic Circle.

Posted by: hoya91 | April 20, 2010 2:18 PM | Report abuse

This is suspicious. No passcode lock? My company isn't the most tech-savy of companies (we just got Office 2007), but even they require some sort of passcode on mobile devices that have company software or email on it.

If it is a publicity stunt, its brilliant.

If it isn't, then I hope the engineer who lost the phone doesn't get fired or demoted.

Posted by: kban495 | April 20, 2010 2:28 PM | Report abuse

Wiredog,
Nome would be a good assignment as penitence, allowing long hours to contemplate the errors in his way. However to be north of the Arctic Circle, he would have to go to Kotzebue or Point Barrow.

Posted by: j_donaldson1 | April 20, 2010 3:00 PM | Report abuse

Although I fully agree that Apple is very clever at getting publicity regarding upcoming releases, something like this is not Apple's style. The fact that the device was remotely wiped by the morning makes it clear Apple was not eager to have the details out.

The behavior of the individuals in this story is just not right. If you find something in a bar or restaurant, you don't take it with you. For sure, you don't sell it to somebody! Gizmodo probably broke the law by buying property that clearly did not belong to the seller.

Posted by: jkh1970 | April 20, 2010 3:53 PM | Report abuse

> He explained that management had
> required him to set the phone to request
> an unlock passcode every time the screen
> shut off.

Wow. That really *IS* an extremely top-secret corp policy.

(Kind of like the same thing millions of normal users do all the time.)

Are 'screen lock passcodes' something new to the Washington Post?


Posted by: alice12 | April 20, 2010 4:35 PM | Report abuse

I think the device was stolen.

Focusing attention on the software engineer it allegedly belonged to is a diversion. What we really should be looking for is the identity of the 'finder,' who was paid for iPhone 4G prototype. He either stole the item himself or was in the chain of persons who sold it to Gizmodo.

Posted by: query0 | April 20, 2010 5:10 PM | Report abuse

Creepy? No. I think it is clear that Gizmodo outed Powell to validate their story. This isn't a scenario where Powell should be treated as a cooperative unnamed source and thereby protected. This story is no different than the media attempts to find out which factory the iphone girl worked at (FoxConn).

Also, there was another report that Apple was initially claiming the device was stolen. Perhaps Powell told his company this to save his job, who knows. But either way it is important for Gizmodo to clear itself from any criminal involvement or possible litigation to protect its business.

FWIW, Rob, leaving a review item out unprotected is a mistake (one that you and the Post were found liable for and had to pay), but having items stolen from you is NOT a mistake (and you and the Post were not liable for those items).

Posted by: prokaryote | April 20, 2010 5:17 PM | Report abuse

Got to go along with the publicity stunt. It is a homely phone. More Coby than Apple.

Posted by: RepealObamacareNow | April 20, 2010 5:50 PM | Report abuse

Two things seem to support media event by Apple:
1) "after which Apple ignored the unnamed finder's attempts to return the phone." either items wasn't important or getting it returned to Apple at that time didn't fit with plan and
2) lack of security. In my office mobile devices challenge the user every 20 minutes during use for pass code which is two part, one being from a random number generating key. And that's not the secure part of our system.

Posted by: tianyisun | April 20, 2010 7:50 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the continued interest...

@LBinVA: Focus on "test model." If you read car magazines (what else can a guy do while waiting for a haircut?), you know that manufacturers always disguise and outright uglify prototypes of future models before they test-drive them on public roads.

@alice12: The iPhone doesn't have a passcode lock active by default, and most people who turn it on don't have it come into play until after a few minutes of inactivity, not every single time the screen shuts off.

Now as for the overriding question: I still think it's a mistake, not a plant or a PR stunt. As I explained (warning, blatant self-promotion ahead) on MSNBC's Countdown show tonight, while it's weird for an Apple engineer accustomed to the company's culture of secrecy to do something as dumb as lose it in a bar, it would be far weirder for the company to make a fake iPhone, drop it in a bar and hope it winds up on a tech-news site instead of eBay. More important, that would go against the company's entire PR strategy of carefully scripting its product launches--the phrase I used on Olbermann was "Apple doesn't do improv."

I'd also point you to this follow-up post from Gizmodo that answers some questions people have asked, such as why Apple ignored the finder's first attempts to return the device to the company.

Meanwhile, I'm glad to see I can count on all of you to correct geographic errors.

- RP


Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | April 20, 2010 10:31 PM | Report abuse

It's all marketing.

Posted by: ChrisW1958 | April 21, 2010 3:36 AM | Report abuse

the other patron "didn't think" to turn it over to bar staff where they have a lost and found bag or box, but took it himself-played with it-and then tried to return it on his own before giving it to a web group!! uh huh. does the guy work for goldman, sachs or the people who found the wmd in iraq to justify an invasion? he/she is either stupid or assumes we are.

Posted by: george32 | April 21, 2010 4:43 AM | Report abuse

Whether it's intentional or not, this is a great marketing for Apple. Where else can Apple get free advertisement from all major media such as Washington Post, NY Times, CNN and BBC?

Posted by: sayNo2MS | April 21, 2010 6:00 AM | Report abuse

It's theft, plain and simple. The guy who found it knew it wasn't his and didn't turn it into the bar where he found it, but instead took it home - theft, no matter what he says his intentions were. Gizmodo paid $5,000 to this guy knowing it wasn't his - buying stolen goods, plain and simple.

Yes, Powell was dumb to lose it. And yes, it should have been pass protected. But that doesn't change what the finder did or what Gizmodo did.

The rule my mother taught me, one I taught to my children, is very simple - if it's not yours, leave it alone.

Posted by: vklip1 | April 21, 2010 6:51 AM | Report abuse

When we buy iProducts, Apple requires we register them with seriel numbers. I cannot fathom, why I can't disactivate a device through iTunes when it's been left on a bar or stolen.

Posted by: DGSPAMMAIL | April 21, 2010 7:03 AM | Report abuse

Is anybody really stupid enough to be duped by this publicity stunt? Apple is absolutely the king of hype, the all-time world's champion corporation at it.

This was a well-planned stunt by Apple. They want as much advance hyper-hype for this tiny incremental tweak for a device that they can muster, and I laugh heartily at the media's willingness to fall for it.

Apple could not possibly have gotten more free advertising than they got from this bit of commercial trickery.

Posted by: FergusonFoont | April 21, 2010 9:11 AM | Report abuse

Why do people think this was a publicity stunt? It's not like Apple doesn't get a ton of publicity every time it announces a new product or significant upgrade to an existing product. Do you really think they're sitting around in Cupertino saying, "Gee, I wish we could figure out how to get the new iPhone in the news?"

Posted by: 0073 | April 21, 2010 9:41 AM | Report abuse

It's naturally cynical, so to me the story never added up. It also happened to land the week of the HTC Incredible was coming out. Perhaps Apple was trying to steal back the spotlight?

Posted by: Corn_Laden | April 21, 2010 10:02 AM | Report abuse

Well my 2nd Gen iPhone isn't new, but I keep it under pass code protection anyway.

How it would be possible for an Apple employee NOT to do the same seems at least foolish, and at worse idiotic.

Something just doesn't seem right about the whole story.... but the lack of the lock code really pushes me over the edge.

Posted by: jltnol | April 21, 2010 10:44 AM | Report abuse

What I find defying credulity is, even in Silicon Valley, someone finding it, understanding the ramifications of it, AND knowing about Gizmodo, and selling it to them. Sounds like the perfect storm of unbelievability. I'd guess that phone wasn't lost, but it, uhh, (let's check those libel laws really fast), was targeted.

Posted by: rzeman-post | April 21, 2010 12:26 PM | Report abuse

I read Gizmodo, but their whole story smells to high heaven. It was very bad form to name the poor guy who "lost" the phone, and then posted his photo so he would be doubly shamed. The evidence indicates that it IS Apple's device, but I don't buy that this was a deliberate leak. Someone at Apple is being punished, and Gizmodo shares the blame.

Posted by: krazykat23 | April 21, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

Hey suckers, this ipod has been planted by Applo to create all this brouhaha, can't you see it?

They went for the shock / OMG!! value.

Posted by: eaglestrk01 | April 21, 2010 1:29 PM | Report abuse

Hey, this ipod 4G has been planted by Apple to create all this brouhaha, can't you see it?

They went for the shock / OMG!! value.

Posted by: eaglestrk01 | April 21, 2010 1:31 PM | Report abuse

You are all being played. There is no doubt that Apple new at all times where that phone was. This is totally calculated.

Posted by: ncphoto | April 21, 2010 2:21 PM | Report abuse

$5,000 was what was paid to the finder of the phone???

I would've held out for at least $20,000. Or... sell it to the National Enquirer... they pay the really big bucks for stories.

Posted by: alutz08 | April 21, 2010 4:40 PM | Report abuse

Apple doesn't need to resort to something like this for "marketing." BTW: I do work in media relations. Apple can send out a press release and all media will show up.

This case is exactly what it appears to be. A brilliant engineer who is lacking in common sense (I am dating one). Powell's Facebook page contents support this--even without the loss of the Apple prototype. Very poor judgment all the way around on this kid's part. Hopefully this will be a wake-up call that this kid needs to pull his head out of his backside and be a little more responsible. He can start by not posting beer comments on his Facebook page. Utterly immature, just the kind of person who would take a prototype phone to a bar, get drunk and leave it behind.

Posted by: pepperjade | April 21, 2010 5:44 PM | Report abuse

RP: "Apple doesn't do improv."

And Jobs didn't mistakenly visit a Times webpage during the iPad demo that required flash. Did you blink and miss it? Or do you think that was intentional?

Posted by: prokaryote | April 22, 2010 10:52 AM | Report abuse

@prokaryote: See my earlier story on Flash and the iPad, in which I led off with a recounting of that demo and then wrote "there was no chance that an operation as detail-obsessed as Apple let this display of incompatibility happen by accident."

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | April 22, 2010 1:36 PM | Report abuse

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