The 27-year-old Powell – a North Carolina State University 2006 graduate and talented amateur photographer – is an Apple Software Engineer working on the iPhone Baseband Software, the little program that enables the iPhone to make calls.
On the night of March 18, he was enjoying the fine imported ales at Gourmet Haus Staudt, a nice German beer garden in Redwood City, California. He was happy. The place was great. The beer was excellent. “I underestimated how good German beer is,” he typed into the next-generation iPhone he was testing on the field, cleverly disguised as an iPhone 3GS. It was his last Facebook update from the secret iPhone. It was the last time he ever saw the iPhone, right before he abandoned it on bar stool, leaving to go home.
Knowing how ferocious and ruthless Apple is about product leaks, those beers may have turned out to be the bitterest of his life.
(Almost) Impenetrable Security
Until now, Apple’s legendary security has always worked perfectly. Perhaps there was a blurry factory photo here, or some last-minute information strategically whispered to some friendly media there. But when it comes to the big stuff, everything is airtight. At their Cupertino campus, any gadget or computer that is worth protecting is behind armoured doors, with security locks with codes that change every few minutes. Prototypes are bolted to desks. Hidden in these labs, hardware, software and industrial-design elves toil separately on the same devices, without really having the complete picture of the final product.
And hidden in every corner, the Apple secret police, a team of people with a single mission: To make sure nobody speaks. And if there’s a leak, hunt down the traitor, and escort him out of the building. Using lockdowns and other fear tactics, these men in black are the last line of defence against any sneaky eyes. The Gran Jefe Steve trusts them to avoid Apple’s worst nightmare: The leak of a strategic product that could cost them millions of dollars in free marketing promotion. One that would make them lose control of the product news cycle.
But the fact is that there’s no perfect security. Not when humans are involved. Humans that can lose things. You know, like the next generation iPhone.
Lost and Found
Apple security’s mighty walls fell on the midnight of Thursday, March 18. At that time, Powell was at Gourmet Haus Staudt, just 32km from the company’s Infinite Loop headquarters, having his fun. Around him, other groups of people were sharing the jolly atmosphere, and plenty of the golden liquid.
The Random Really Drunk Guy pointed at the iPhone sitting on the stool, the precious prototype left by the young Apple engineer.
“Hey man, is that your iPhone?” asked Random Really Drunk Guy.
“Hmmm, what?” replied the person who ended up with the iPhone. “No, no, it isn’t mine.”
“Ooooh, I guess it’s your friend’s then,” referring to a friend who at the time was in the bathroom. “Here, take it,” said the Random Really Drunk Guy, handing it to him. “You don’t want to lose it.” After that, the Random Really Drunk Guy also left the bar.
The person who ended up with the iPhone asked around, but nobody claimed it. He thought about that young guy sitting next to him, so he and his friend stayed there for some time, waiting. Powell never came back.
During that time, he played with it. It seemed like a normal iPhone. “I thought it was just an iPhone 3GS,” he told me in a telephone interview. “It just looked like one. I tried the camera, but it crashed three times.” The iPhone didn’t seem to have any special features, just two bar codes stuck on its back: 8800601pex1 and N90_DVT_GE4X_0493. Next to the volume keys there was another sticker: iPhone SWE-L200221. Apart from that, just six pages of applications. One of them was Facebook. And there, on the Facebook screen, was the Apple engineer, Gray Powell.
Thinking about returning the phone the next day, he left. When he woke up after the hazy night, the phone was dead. Bricked remotely, through MobileMe, the service Apple provides to track and wipe out lost iPhones. It was only then that he realised that there was something strange that iPhone. The exterior didn’t feel right and there was a camera on the front. After tinkering with it, he managed to open the fake 3GS.
There it was, a shiny thing, completely different from everything that came before.
Weeks later, Gizmodo got it. It was the real thing. Once we saw it inside and out, there was no doubt about it. We learnt about this story, but we didn’t know for sure it was Powell’s phone until today, when we contacted him:
Gray Powell: Hello?
John Herrman: Is this Gray?
J: Hi, this is John Herrman from Gizmodo.com.
J: You work at Apple, right?
G: Um, I mean I can’t really talk too much right now.
J: I understand. We have a device, and we think that maybe you misplaced it at a bar, and we would like to give it back.
G: Yeah, I forwarded your email [asking him if it was his iPhone] , someone should be contacting you.
G: Can I send this phone number along?
J: [Contact information]
He sounded tired and broken. But at least he’s alive.
Unlike Apple’s legendary impenetrable security, breached by the power of German beer and one single human mistake.
Additional reporting by John Herrman; extra thanks to Kyle VanHemert, Matt Buchanan and Arianna Reiche