Is Gizmodo's "big reveal" of the next-generation iPhone-weeks or months before Apple planned to let Steve Jobs do the job-unprecedented? Yeah, pretty much. Products from other companies show up prematurely all the time (here's a look at HP's slate PC). But I can't remember a site anyone pays attention to getting extended, unapproved hands-on time with an unreleased Apple product-let alone anything as significant as a new iPhone.
(Gizmodo, incidentally, has now explained how it got the phone and identified the poor Apple employee who left it behind at a Silicon Valley bar. It also says that Apple has asked for the phone back, and that it will comply.)
Apple may be better at keeping surprises surprising than any other tech company, but its veil of secrecy has never been 100% effective. Some of the company's biggest product launches have been preceded by leaks of photos and facts-and when Apple had quashed them, it's only tended to confirm that the sites did indeed have scoops.
Herewith, four examples:
2000: An Apple employee who goes by the online handle Worker Bee starts posting information on (and, sometimes, images of) upcoming products on GeoCities and Apple fan sites. His leaks include accurate information on new-if-no-earthshaking products: upgraded PowerMacs and iBooks, and the Apple Pro Mouse.
Apple's response: It files a lawsuit even before it knows who the guy is, and has to pretty much disclose that Worker Bee's iBook scuttlebutt is accurate-even though the iBook hadn't yet been released. The leaker is eventually revealed to be a former Apple temp named Juan Gutierrez. The dispute ends in an out-of-court settlement that shuts Gutierrez up.
2004: In December, an indispensable Apple rumor site, Think Secret, spoils a Steve Jobs keynote's surprises in a spectacular fashion which remained unmatched until Gizmodo's story hit the Web: It says that January's Macworld Expo SF 2005 will feature a $499 Mac with no keyboard or mouse, as well as a suite called iWork which will feature a new word processor called Pages. The site's stories-here's one, and here's another-are full of little details that turn out to be on the money.
Apple's response: A week before Macworld Expo, it sues Think Secret's pseudonymous proprietor Nick DePlume, once again before it knows who he is. (His real name turns out to be Nick Ciarelli.) A little under three years later, a settlement is reached-one that involves Ciarelli agreeing to shut down Think Secret. I still miss it.
2007: In late August, 9to5Mac, CrunchGear, and Gizmodo (who?) post spy shots of an alleged new iPod Nano design whose squarish proportions earn it the nickname "Fat Nano," even though the story is that it'll be called something other than a Nano.
Apple's reponse: Its legal team immediately sends out cease-and-desist letters. The sites pull the shots (CrunchGear and Gizmodo replace them with artist's renderings). On September 5th, Apple holds a press event and introduces...the gizmo in the spy shots. It's still called the iPod Nano, though.
The iPhone 4G story is different not only because Gizmodo had possession of an unreleased Apple product, but also because the Apple-employee-takes-secret-phone-to-bar backstory is so damn fascinating. And this story isn't over yet. For one thing, we don't know whether Apple is going to get litigious, or whether it'll conclude it's better to pretty much pretend this never happened. For another, it remains unclear just how much there is to know about the next iPhone that Giz didn't glean from its time with one.
Any guesses as to whether there are more shoes yet to drop?
This story, "A Brief History of Past Apple Leaks" was originally published by Technologizer.