Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The strange case of Gizmodo and the iPhone prototype

You'd have to be living under a rock for the last 24 hours not to have heard about Gizmodo's reporting about a device that appears to be a prototype of the next-generation iPhone. (I'm not going to link to Gizmodo, for reasons that will become obvious.) Here's the 30-second summary, as I understand it:
  • The phone was left at a bar in Redwood City, CA by an Apple engineer, and was found by another patron.
  • Rather than turn the phone over to the bar management so that it could be claimed by the owner, the patron took it home and noticed that although the rubber cover looked like an iPhone 3GS, the phone inside was significantly different, with two cameras, a flash, two volume buttons, a higher resolution display and a more angular industrial design.
  • The device was clearly labeled "Apple", and rather than contact Apple to see if it was their device, the finder of the phone took photos of it and sent them to Engadget, and probably others.
  • Engadget published the photos and noted that the finder was offering to sell Engadget (and others) time playing with the phone.
  • Gizmodo purchased the phone for a rumored $5,000 and confirmed that it looks like an iPhone to Apple's own software. The blog took videos and still photos of the the phone, and then disassembled it and identified a number of components labeled "Apple".
  • At some point yesterday, Apple contacted Gizmodo and requested that the phone be returned. Gizmodo agreed to do so, on the condition that Apple request return of the phone in writing.
  • Gizmodo then published the name and picture of the engineer who lost the phone.
  • Finally, Gizmodo received and published a one-page letter from Apple requesting return of the phone.
On the one hand, this was a great "get" by Gizmodo. Apple is famous for keeping pre-announcement prototypes locked down, and letting a blog not only see but tear down the next iPhone a couple of months before its announcement was a security failure of the first order. However, Gizmodo did some really sleazy (and potentially illegal) things in the process of getting and reporting its scoop:
  • The person who found the phone shouldn't have kept it; he or she should have left it with management at the bar. In the worst case, the finder should have contacted Apple and found out if they wanted the phone back. That's not good manners, that's California law on found property.
  • Gizmodo has lawyers and should have known that buying the phone was tantamount to buying stolen property.
  • When Apple asked for the phone back, Gizmodo demanded a written request that it could publish in order to corroborate the authenticity of the phone. (They may have also demanded an agreement by Apple not to prosecute; we may never know what side deals were made.)
  • Gizmodo revealed the identity of the engineer who lost the phone but not the identity of the person who found it. Why Gizmodo found it necessary to "out" the engineer, I have no idea. There were rumors circulating that the phone was stolen from Apple, not lost, so perhaps Gizmodo thought that by naming the person who lost it, they would prove that it wasn't stolen. Possibly by "outing" the engineer, they thought that they were providing him some level of protection from retaliation by Apple. However, given everything else that's happened in this case, I think that Gizmodo was looking out for its own interests. In any event, they've managed to further damage the reputation of the engineer, who will now have to explain this event for the rest of his career.
The whole thing stinks, and it's not the first time that Gizmodo has played around at the edges and gotten burnt. You may remember a couple of years ago, when some Gizmodo correspondents took a gadget that turns off TV sets to CES in Las Vegas. They went around turning off displays in exhibitors' booths, sometimes in the middle of presentations, and took pictures of the carnage that resulted. That action got Gizmodo and its reporters banned from CES.

Gizmodo could have taken pictures of the phone and played with it, then voluntarily returned it to Apple without demanding a written request. It didn't have to name the engineer who lost the phone. It shouldn't have purchased the phone in the first place if it had a strong suspicion that the person who had it shouldn't have kept it. Scoops are wonderful, but when they involve breaking the law and helping to destroy the reputation of a person who probably would never have been publicly identified, it's no longer journalism and no longer deserves respect.
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