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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Apple to Gizmodo: Yep, that's our phone, and we want it back

Well, I guess this settles it as far as the authenticity of Gizmodo's iPhone 4G scoop Monday. The definitive piece of evidence: a letter from Apple's top lawyer, formally requesting the safe return of the wayward next-generation iPhone — the one left on a Redwood City barstool last month by a young (and surely red-faced) Apple software engineer.

Gizmodo posted the letter late Monday, and the missive — while firm in tone, and signed by Apple General Counsel and Senior VP Bruce Sewell — stops short of making any legal threats, at least for the time being:

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.

Gizmodo Editorial Director Brian Lam replied cheekily that the lost, radically redesigned iPhone was "burning a hole in our pockets" and that he was "happy to see it returned to its rightful owner" now that "we definitely know it's not some knockoff."

The news came just hours after the bloggers Gizmodo described how a 27-year-old software engineer at Apple (who is named and pictured in the post, by the way) managed to leave the precious iPhone 4G prototype — disguised to look like an iPhone 3GS — on a barstool at the Gourmet Haus Straut, a "nice German beer garden" in Redwood City, about 20 miles northwest of Apple HQ in Cupertino. (Engadget had blogged over the weekend that the phone was lost in a San Jose watering hole, leading to some initial confusion.)

Having downed a few brews, the hapless Apple engineer eventually rolled out of the bar, according to Gizmodo, absentmindedly leaving behind the next-generation iPhone (which he'd been field testing, the post said). Hey, it happens. (If I had a nickel for every time I left a credit card at a bar ... ) Another man in the bar ended up taking the phone home, peeled off the protective jacket the next day, and realized he had a windfall on his hands.

And as we all now know, "weeks later, Gizmodo got it," says Gawker Media Inc.'s Gizmodo — leaving out a key detail that Nick Denton, founder of Gawker Media, filled in later for the Associated Press: The company paid $5,000 for it.

What followed, I'm sure, was a scene similar to the wonderful sequence in the BBC version of "State of Play": The editors huddled with their lawyers, the crucial evidence (a suitcase of documents in "State of Play," an iPhone in the case of Gizmodo) on a table before them, trying to suss out whether they should write a story or call the police.

So, is Gizmodo in trouble? Hard to say, but the L.A. Times tech blog checked in with UC Irvine law professor Henry Weinstein, who says Gizmodo is probably in the clear: "Journalists generally do not get prosecuted for being in receipt of stolen documents, as opposed to the person who received the documents and turned them over." (It's worth noting that Gizmodo claims the iPhone in question wasn't stolen — merely "lost.")

Now, Apple may find some other way to punish the Gizmodo guys (who are fast becoming the Merry Pranksters of tech bloggerdom) — perhaps a different legal route, or it may freeze out Gizmodo in terms of access to Apple reps and review samples. Then again, Apple reportedly had already snubbed Gizmodo by refusing to give it an advance review iPad, so ... sounds like Gizmodo's iPhone scoop may have been sweet revenge for the spurned blog.

And c'mon: Here's Apple, perhaps the most infamously paranoid company of all time, complete with triple-secret security zones, blackout curtains hung over conference room windows, flashing red warning lights, prototype devices chained to tables, and all that — only to suffer the (arguably) worst security breach in its history because some poor guy left the next iPhone on a barstool. The irony is just too rich.

Of course, this is all inside baseball (albeit a fascinating game of inside baseball); in the end, we're left with what appears to be an enticing new iPhone, with a revamped design (flat and shiny on the front and back, trim aluminum sides, thinner but a bit heavier), dual cameras (with a front-facing lens for video chat), a bigger battery, and what appears to be a higher-resolution display. The design may change between now and the final shipping date — after all, the phone Gizmodo snagged may only have been a prototype — but still, there's little question that the iPhone as we know it is poised for some big changes.

• Gizmodo: A Letter: Apple Wants Its Secret iPhone Back
• Gizmodo: This Is Apple's Next iPhone

— Ben Patterson is a technology writer for Yahoo! News.
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