The recent Gizmodo-iPhone controversy has been the talk of the tech segment of the blogosphere for the past month. Even with most of the facts, it is difficult to decipher whether or not this is a case of ruthless opportunism (from both Apple and the leakers of the iPhone), a brilliant marketing ploy from a famously image conscious tech giant, or both. For those not in the know, the following is a brief recount of what happened:
On the 19th of April Jason Chen, editor of tech blogging site Gizmodo, posted an article revealing the details of Apple’s newest prototype 4G iPhone. Immediately it could be seen that this was just the beginning of a very nasty confrontation between all who were involved with the leak and the notoriously secretive tech giant Apple. Four days after this article was posted, a Search Warrant was carried out on Jason Chen’s house by the California state Rapid Enforcement Allied Computer Team (REACT) that resulted in the seizure of all of Chen’s computer equipment. Since this incident, the iPhone has been returned to its rightful owner (Apple), and an on-going legal battle is being played out.
The contentious issue surrounding this case is whether or not Gizmodo knowingly sought to obtain a stolen iPhone. It is known that the iPhone parted from the possession of Apple via one of its engineers Robert ‘Gray’ Powell who accidentally left it in a bar in Redwood City, California. Here it was picked up by university student Brian Hogan. After discovering that the iPhone was nothing like he had seen before, Hogan proceeded to offer the phone to tech news companies (including Gizmodo) in exchange for money. Gizmodo offered US$5000 for the phone and Hogan accepted. If it is proven that Hogan made no concerted effort to return the iPhone to its rightful owner, it will be considered a theft under Californian Law and both Hogan and Gizmodo as participants in a knowing exchange of stolen goods will be liable for prosecution.
There has been talk among blog sites worldwide that the invasion of Jason Chen’s house under a search warrant was in fact illegal due to Chen being covered by the California Reporter’s Shield law that protects journalists and their sources from the release of unpublished information in the interests of privacy protection. It should be noted however that if a journalist is found to be engaging in the law breaking activity of their source (as seems to be the case the Police and Apple are putting forth), the Shield Law may be considered moot, and hence the journalist may no longer be protected.
Most recently the Search Warrant for Jason Chen’s house was unsealed at the behest of the media and blogging world, providing an accurate account of the events that led up to Gizmodo obtaining the phone and Gizmodo’s correspondence and eventual exchange with Apple. In addition, it is been revealed that Brian Hogan’s roommate, Katherine Martinson – whose Mac book was used to first synchronise the iPhone after it came to be in Hogan’s possession, has come forth with an incriminating account of Hogan’s actions pertaining to the fact that Hogan had worked out who the phone belonged to, and the nature of the phone’s prototype. With this knowledge Hogan approached several tech blogging sites and offered the phone in exchange for money. For fear of personal persecution as an accomplice (by Apple tracking the iPhone to her Mac book) in what she could gather was an illegal act, Hogan’s roommate contacted Apple. It was reported that Apple sent representatives to Hogan’s house in search of the rogue iPhone, however Apple has denied this occurred, explaining that instead the Police were informed immediately and they were sent to retrieve the iPhone from Hogan’s house. Hogan’s cooperation was assured when the police informed him that hiding evidence implied a ‘consciousness of guilt’ which prompted him to reveal the where-abouts of the digital records of the iPhone that he and another housemate of his, Thomas Warner, had hidden in the anticipation of a police inquiry.
Apple are supposedly concerned that sales of the current iPhone are going to be harmed by the leak of the prototype of their new 4G version. This may well be true for the mean time, but this sort of priceless advertising of a product they haven’t even released yet may generate enough hype to get Apple the sales to more than cover their losses. This isn’t the first time Apple have been involved with a ‘product leak’ whereby an employee accidentally (or purposely, depending on whose story you believe) has revealed the features of an unreleased iProduct. Most of the previous leaks only involved pictures and mild speculative descriptions of the unreleased Apple products however, nothing really on the scale of a tech blogger obtaining and dismantling a prototype product the way Gizmodo did recently.
While the ensuing legal battle (that Apple has proven to be fond of) may prove to be costly, a controversy is an excellent way to garner media and consumer attention. Steve Jobs himself is certainly monitoring the ether, as can be seen with his e-duel with Gawker (Gizmodo’s parent company) blogger Ryan Tait, one can only assume to gauge user (read consumer) reaction and where possible defend the ‘pure’ motives of Apple to provide the ultimate user experience through the litigious defence of their intellectual property.
We haven’t heard the end of this saga, and no doubt the details may never be fully clear. But through sheer consumer curiosity and the insatiable desire to be at the forefront of user interaction (both of the users and companies like Apple), it may not be the last we hear of such cases of industrial espionage or brilliantly ruthless iMarketing ploys.