Is This Really the Next Apple iPhone?

iphone_gizmodo_crop

Hot or not? The phone Gizmodo claims is an Apple prototype.

In the world of tech-gadget journalism, this score represents the Holy Grail—a next-generation Apple iPhone discovered in a bar, presumably left there by a careless employee. The photos of the phone are splattered all over the home page of tech-gadget blog Gizmodo today. If they're real, the folks at Apple, a place known for its crazy secrecy and security measures, must be freaking out.

"This is our biggest Apple week ever," says Brian Lam, editor of Gizmodo. "This is the best. It's just so great."

Traffic to the site was so heavy that Gizmodo had to take down its comments system. The post, they said, was "setting our servers on fire."

Apple, for its part, did not respond immediately to NEWSWEEK's request for comment.

Lam and his colleagues say they believe the phone is real—not a dummy or an imitation. They say Apple is expected to roll out the next iPhone in June, which would explain why prototypes would be floating around Silicon Valley.

The official version of the story goes like this: Gizmodo was contacted by a person who said he'd found the phone at a bar in Redwood City, Calif., about 20 miles from Apple headquarters in Cupertino.

The finder claimed the phone was inside a regular box for an iPhone 3GS, and was disguised in a case that made it look like a 3GS model. But inside that case was a new model—slimmer than the current iPhone model, with a sleek new design and an extra camera, one that faces you so you can use it for videoconferencing.

Gizmodo got hold of the phone, took it apart, and found it was loaded with components marked "Apple." The phone won't boot up, but the guy who found it claimed that when he first turned it on it was running the next version of Apple's mobile operating system—which then was remotely disabled, presumably by Apple. The new phone is slightly heavier (3 grams more) than the current 3GS model, and appears to have a better battery than the current version.

The story first broke on Gizmodo's leading rival, a blog called Engadget, which posted photos of the device over the weekend and claimed it had been found in a bar in San Jose. John Gruber, a blogger who appears to have sources inside Apple, on Saturday suggested the whole thing was a hoax.

But on Sunday, Gruber wrote that he'd "called around," and "I now believe this is an actual photo from Apple—a unit Apple is very interested in getting back."

This, it seems to me, was Apple's way of confirming the story. Apple doesn't communicate directly with the outside world. But they do talk to friendly journalists, and use those people to leak their side of a story. In the world of Apple journalists, Gruber is as friendly as they get.

On Monday, Gizmodo upped the ante, claiming it not only had photos—it had obtained the device itself. Gruber, a devoted Apple fanboy, then blogged that (a) Gizmodo had paid for the device; and that (b) "it is my understanding that Apple considers this unit stolen, not lost."

In other words: You bought stolen goods, and you're going to be in a very great deal of trouble.

Lam says Apple hasn't contacted Gizmodo to demand the phone be returned, but as he sees it, the company is in a bit of a pickle. If Apple does demand the phone back, it will basically be admitting that the device is genuine. But Apple likes to keep everything a secret until the last possible minute, to build suspense. Admitting that Gizmodo is right would just let the air out of the balloon. And making a big legal stink will only draw more attention to what Gizmodo is reporting. "If they contact us, we'll just do another post," Lam says.

As for whoever lost the phone, it's hard to imagine what kind of recrimination that person will face from Apple. Last summer an engineer at Foxconn, the Chinese company that makes iPhones, committed suicide after losing a prototype phone and allegedly being badgered and harassed by Foxconn security goons. Bottom line: If this all turns out to be true, somewhere in Cupertino there is someone enduring such abuse that Guantánamo Bay would seem like a vacation.