On Lost iPhone Prototypes

I’ve been reading the comments on Gizmodo’s “How Apple Lost the Next iPhone.” I have a few observations in response to a few of the types of comments.

“I can’t believe someone like Gray Powell would have a prototype phone out in the wild.”

I can. It makes perfect sense for the guy who writes the baseband controller firmware to have one out for personal testing. When there’s a problem he can dump logs, etc. while it’s happening. There is sometimes no substitute for being able to see a problem in action, and having the guy eat his own dog food is a great way to do that. I, as an iPhone user, appreciate this level of testing.

“I can’t believe someone with a prototype phone would be that irresponsible.”

The whole point of field testing is to take it with you everywhere, and use it like you would use it normally. Sure, it sucks to lose your phone in the process. But you know, from the sounds of Mr. Powell’s last Facebook status update he was new to drinking German beer, and underestimated its quality and ass-kicking nature. I, as a German beer drinker, can’t fault someone for trying something new.

“I can’t believe someone took the phone instead of turning it in.”

The somewhat inebriated line of thinking is usually that you’ll take it and call the guy in the morning. Anybody commenting about finding a lost phone at a Starbucks and turning it in to the barista hasn’t been drinking. Logic does not apply.

“The guy that found it was intentionally malicious the whole time, else he would have returned it right away or left it there.”

It was bricked by the time the finder was sober, and there wasn’t a chance to apply logic to the situation. Personally, I would have posted to the guy’s own Facebook wall right away, but again, that’s logic and doesn’t apply when you’ve been drinking. I think the decision to brick it immediately caused more problems than just going with the flow for a few more hours and waiting for a call. Hell, send it a text, “hey, if you have my phone can you call me so I can meet you?”

The best way to avoid suspicion is to act like nothing is amiss.

“This is a big ad for MobileMe.”

I doubt it was intentional, but heck yeah, I’ve got a demo MobileMe account I haven’t played with much and now I’m really going to check it out. I’ve always been afraid of what might happen if my phone leaves my possession, maybe I have been overlooking something.

“Why didn’t Apple just remotely find the location of the device and go get it? Deliberately not recovering the phone was intentional.”

First, this isn’t the movies. Second, I’m not 100% sure of what MobileMe can ascertain about the device but finding the actual location of it was probably less important, and less possible, than securing the device. When it was discovered what happened, Apple had two choices. They could actively seek out the device, which would arouse suspicion and cause news stories, especially if they tried to use law enforcement channels. Or they could just assume that the device is in a lost and found box somewhere and that nobody would know the difference. Mr. Powell could retrace his steps and retrieve it, and nobody would be the wiser. I suspect Apple decided to play it cool and just assume that the server at the bar, who was the most likely to recover it, wouldn’t do a thorough examination of it and just put it in box in the office already full of lost hot pink Motorola RAZRs, Blackberries, and other iPhones in hot pink cases.

It’s a gamble, and in this case it didn’t work. Why? Because there are a lot of curious techie-types in Silicon Valley, and because Apple didn’t think like a bunch of curious techie-types who had been drinking.

It’s also very possible that Apple wasn’t involved in the initial response to the situation, and the bricking was just a “CRAP CRAP CRAP I’m so fired” response by Mr. Powell. He called the bar, they weren’t open or didn’t have it, and he continued freaking out. Irrational thinking, but totally understandable. It’s also a good argument against him being fired by Apple, by the way. That sort of additional pressure just makes mistakes bigger, and makes people more apt to try hiding a mistake, neither of which are productive.

“Why didn’t it just get turned in to Apple?”

From the story, it sounds like they tried, but ended up with a support ticket. To me, having worked in a help desk, this says that either the person reporting this wasn’t very clear about what they had, or that the person taking the call wasn’t properly empowered to escalate this to someone that could have handled the situation. It’s likely the caller didn’t know what they had at the time, because a nice, clear “I have a prototype iPhone that was lost and want to give it back” would have probably made the point, loud & clear.

“This has been seriously destructive to Apple’s marketing plans for iPhone 4.”

Doubtful. It’s not like it was working when Gizmodo had it. And what did we learn? We learned that everything we suspected would be in a new phone revision is, and that we can’t use our 3GS cases on the new phone. Big frickin’ deal. Steve Jobs can still do all the demos of the thing this summer and we’ll still be in awe. After all, the iPhone is way more about software than hardware.

Actually, it’d be pretty funny if Apple had Mr. Powell participate in the presentation this summer.

“Selling & buying stolen property is a dumb idea and Apple should prosecute everybody involved.”

I suspect that the legal status of the iPhone is questionable at best, and the people that found it can reasonably say they tried to notify the owner of the loss. If I were Apple I’d just want this whole incident to go away soon. Taking legal action against people isn’t a good way to make it go away quickly, but it is a good way to seem like a bunch of litigious jerks, and that’s not a good choice.

The other thing is that, given the prevalence of iPhones in the wild, why would someone finding one initially assume it’s a prototype? And unless it had a sticker on it saying “This is the property of Apple Computer” there is also no reason to even think it belongs to a company. iPhones are not popular with enterprises, yet. Frankly, beyond waiting just a little longer to brick it, a sticker would have helped immensely:

“This device belongs to Apple Computer. If you have it the person with it has obviously left it somewhere. Could you please call 1-800-whatever and we’ll arrange to get it? We’ll give you an iTunes gift card as a thank you.” That’s nice & non-suspicious.

“This was a plant.”

Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”