In a journalistic coup on a par with the Pentagon Papers or the Watergate Conspiracy, Gizmodo recently found itself in the possession of a prototype next-generation iPhone that had gotten "into the wild." You can read the full story here, but in a nutshell:
– An iPhone is found in a bar. The person who found it, suspecting it to be more than the 3Gs it claimed to be on its case, alerted several tech blogs, including Engadget (who ran several is-it-or-isn't-it pictures) and Gizmodo, who ultimately bought the phone from its new owner for a pretty penny (estimated to be in the range of US$5,000.00).
– Gizmodo cracks open the case and — surprise! — it IS a next-gen iPhone: Front facing camera. Better rear camera, with flash. High(er)-rez screen. Larger battery. Micro-SIM, a la the iPad. By this time, the phone'd been remotely wiped by MobileMe, but the previous owner confirmed it was running OS 4.0.
– As word of Gizmodo's scoop hits the Intertubes, competing tech blogs leap into the fray, often to excorciate Giz for everything from "checkbook journalism" to receiving stolen property (per Andy Ihnatko).
– After some more investigative work, Gizmodo locates (and publicly "outs") the Apple Software Engineer who left the prototype in the bar in the first place. Contacting him via phone, he sheepishly blames it on the pub's extra-strong beer (and was, no doubt, praying his job wasn't on the line). Giz graciously offered to return the phone to him, and gave him their contact info.
– Gizmodo gets a letter from House of Jobs legal eagles, politely asking for the phone back. They comply, joking that it was burning a hole in their pockets anyway.
So what's the moral here? For all their jackboot paranoia, Apple's security practices aren't foolproof — nobody's are. This may be an egregious example, but look at the last few hardware/software debuts: so much rumor/scuttlebutt/whispers/leaks swirled around (to name just two examples) the iPad and OS 4.0 that by the time the actual release dates came, all the pomp and circumstance that Apple could muster was met by the Fourth Estate not with a collective "WOW!," but rather "Okay, it's finally here. Let's run down our checklist and confirm what was/wasn't included."
It's the old saying "three people can keep a secret if two of 'em are dead." It's been — what? — decades since the original Steve's (Jobs and Wozniak) started building circuit boards in a garage. Try as they might, Apple attempts at maintaining zero leaks is starting to resemble the erosion of pro wrestling's "kayfabe" (i.e. trying to pretend it's a real sport, and Wrestler A is the mortal enemy of Wrestler B when the two are probably carpooling to the next show).
At this point, all Apple can do is put their heads down and develop a product that really does make us go "WOW!"