Apple's Drunken FAIL of the Year

Apple got a chink in its brushed aluminum armor this week.

First, a brief summary of the story as it stands (according to Gizmodo.com). On March 18th, Apple software designer Gray Powell decided to have some drinks at a local German bar in San Francisco. It would have been just a normal happy-go-lucky evening except for one very important detail.

Powell was carrying a prototype 4th-generation iPhone.

As the story goes, Powell left this precious gem on a bar stool and a patron found it shortly thereafter. He played around with it for a bit, waiting for Powell to come back, which he never did. In the meantime the patron found Powell’s name in the Facebook app on the phone.

The next morning, he realized something strange about the device. It had the rounded case design of an iPhone 3GS, but when he removed the case he found something blocky and unfamiliar, but still very much a sleek, well-engineered Apple iPhone.

He noticed a few very important differences. The phone had a front-facing camera, flat metallic edges like the iPad and microphones both on the top and bottom. Furthermore, Powell had wiped the phone remotely using MobileMe, preventing the finder from booting the phone up fully.

After making some unsuccessful attempts to contact Apple about the lost phone, the finder decided to go a different route. He contacted the major gadget blogs Engadget and Gizmodo and after some negotiations sold the phone to Gizmodo.

The wizards at Gizmodo descended on the prototype, analyzing it in excruciating detail to verify that it was an authentic prototype. This past weekend they released their detailed report to the world; this phone was, in fact, the new 4th-generation iPhone. Gizmodo had just gotten the tech scoop of the year.

This incident was rather unprecedented. Apple is notorious for its ultra-tight security surrounding unreleased products. The best that usually comes out is a blurry photo or some technical specifications. Remember just how very little we knew about Apple’s tablet until the iPad announcement in January.

Due to Apple’s track record, some have speculated that this entire incident was an Apple-orchestrated hoax. The phone’s finder (who remains anonymous) could have been working with Powell, who left the phone at the bar intentionally (if that incident even happened at all).

The finder then waited for the right moment. Apple has been suffering some rough media coverage as a result of iPad shipment delays and competing smartphones like the Droid Incredible are getting a lot of positive attention. Apple’s “leaked” iPhone 4G was their ace-in-the-hole to steal back the spotlight.

Indeed, the scoop has generated enormous buzz for the new device. Coming on the heels of iPhone OS 4’s announcement a couple of weeks ago, we now have a pretty good idea of what exciting things to expect for the next generation of Apple flagship product. It’s got many technophiles drooling in anticipation.

However, I believe that such conspiracy theories give Apple far too much credit. Are we really that convinced of Apple infallibility? We know that they’ve let prototypes out in the wild before. Letting these toys out into the real world is an important component of the development cycle.

An incident like this was bound to happen. The human factor is a powerful variable, one that gets even more difficult to control once you throw some stout German ale into the mix.

Gray Powell is probably stressing out to the max right now. He might even have lost his job over this incident. However, I believe Apple will forgive him. The positive press his little goof is generating has put the iPhone back on our minds and given us something to crave now that the iPad is yesterday’s news.

Nevertheless, this whole ordeal reveals something very important about Apple – even they can fail at what they do best. We must always remember that despite Apple’s great successes, they are still a company of fallible, occasionally drunk human beings.

(This post also ran as an Op-Ed in the Daily Toreador on April 21st, 2010)