Faster Forward: Tale of lost Apple iPhone prototype gets weirder

By Rob Pegoraro
Monday, April 19, 2010; 2:07 PM

That next-generation iPhone that somehow disappeared in a Bay Area bar before surfacing in a story on the Gizmodo tech-news site is now on its way back to Apple.

The questions about this device's adventures may take a while longer to answer.

Start with Gizmodo's how-we-got-this-thing post from Monday evening. The piece relates how an Apple engineer named Gray Powell spent a night at a Redwood City, Calif., beer garden (for what it's worth, Yelp's users highly endorse the place) and then forgot to grab the device when he left.

Another patron found the phone but didn't think to hand it over to the bar's staff--the polite thing to do in this situation. Instead he played with the gadget long enough to see Powell's Facebook page, then took the device home intending to contact the owner the next morning. But in Gizmodo's recounting, it had been remotely wiped by then (a feature of Apple's MobileMe service), after which Apple ignored the unnamed finder's attempts to return the phone.

Gizmodo's story includes biographical details and photos of Powell, apparently taken from his Facebook and Flickr pages. It does not, however, mention that the New York-based site paid the finder of the phone $5,000 for it, something reported separately by the Associated Press and the New York Times.

Late Monday night, another Gizmodo post reported that Apple had asked for the device back, and that the site was complying with the request.

Meanwhile, I'm still trying to process the idea of an Apple employee carrying around unsecured, unreleased hardware, given what I know about that company's habits of secrecy.

I am acquainted with a developer at Apple, and last summer I ran into him while he was carrying around an older iPhone with an upcoming version of the iPhone's software--a release that Apple had already publicly demonstrated. He explained that management had required him to set the phone to request an unlock passcode every time the screen shut off.

I've also heard about the remarkable security restrictions Apple imposed on early recipients of the iPad--according to a BusinessWeek story, lucky developers had to store it "in a room with blacked-out windows" and keep it "tethered to a fixed object."

And yet: Things happen. Mistakes are made. I know this because I had three items of review hardware disappear on my watch years ago. One vanished off my desk at work, and two were lost inside a stolen bag. (The Post cut a check for the first item, on the vendor's request; the other two companies forgave the loss.)

I enjoy watching others extract information from uncooperative companies and try to do the same myself. But after reading Gizmodo's creepy outing of Powell, isn't it hard to take too much joy from this escapade?

Or... do you, like some, think this lost device was some sort of decoy that doesn't represent the next iPhone, and which Apple meant to have show up online?

© 2010 The Washington Post Company