Today, Apple is expected to announce yet another blockbuster financial quarter, with sales of its iPhone smart phone likely doubling when compared to the same quarter a year ago. But that isn't Apple's biggest news this week. Instead, the company is scrambling to undo the harm caused when one of its engineers lost a prototype iPhone HD, a device Apple is expected to announce this June. The prototype ended up in the hands of a nefarious gadget blog, which not only gleefully published photos and videos of the device but also later outed the employee who lost it.
Such is tech journalism today.
The back story here is so unlikely, so unbelievable, that it sounds like an April Fool's joke, and I've had to repeatedly check the calendar to make sure I wasn't missing something. Here's how it (allegedly) goes: On March 18, a 27-year-old Apple engineer visited the German beer garden at the Gourmet Haus Staudt in Redwood City, California, near the Apple campus. Like many before him, he ended up leaving for home sans phone, which wouldn't be such a big deal, except that he was carting around a prototype for the next iPhone. (His unfortunate last Facebook update: "I underestimated how good German beer is.” Insert your own joke here.)
The phone was supposedly found by an unknown individual who just happened to understand its importance, and after some cursory attempts to return it to the owner, he began sending photos of the device to various gadget-of-the-moment blogs. Ultimately, Gizmodo paid the finder $5,000 to get an exclusive. "Yes, we'll do anything for a story," Nick Denton, the founder of Gizmodo's parent company, brazenly posted via Twitter. And sure enough, the publication of photos and videos of the device has racked up millions of page views online.
It's also put the site in Apple's legal crosshairs. Apple CEO Steve Jobs (again, allegedly) called Gizmodo, demanding the return of the device. But Gizmodo's Brian Lam stated his site's terms. "All they have to do to get it back is to claim it, on record." So the company did, courtesy of a very concise letter from Apple senior vice president and general counsel Bruce Sewell. It reads, in its entirety:
"It has come to our attention that Gizmodo is currently in possession of a device that belongs to Apple. This letter constitutes a formal request that you return the device to Apple. Please let me know where to pick up the unit."
So although this seems like a big win for the youngster bloggers at Gizmodo, the truth is, they just lost all their special Apple access. And the next time Apple holds a product unveiling, you can bet that Gizmodo won't be among the sites attending. What's unclear is whether the site's activities this week—which, again, involved actually publishing the name and photos of the unfortunate Apple employee who lost the device—have caused it to lose credibility on a wider scale.
Regarding that employee, a characteristically-written Gizmodo post reads, "at least he's alive, and apparently may still be working at Apple—as he should be. After all, it's just a #$%@ing iPhone and mistakes can happen to everyone—\\[the employee in question\\], Phil Schiller, you, me, and Steve Jobs. The only real mistake would be to fire \\[the employee\\] in the name of Apple's legendary impenetrable security, breached by the power of German beer and one single human error."
I'm not sure that was the only "real mistake" here, to be honest. There's been a lot of debate online about what legal action Apple can take against the site, the person who found the phone, and, presumably, anyone else that's even remotely involved in this story. But this episode speaks volumes about the quality of today's tech press and blogosphere, and the unprofessional, Attention-Deficit Disorder way in which it goes about its daily business. There are times when I'm proud to be part of this engine. This is not one of those days.