Deconstructing the San Jose iPhone Prototype [Updated]

The Internet lit up with reports over the weekend that the next generation iPhone had been found in a San Jose bar, complete with photos of the alleged device. The mystery device stopped working shortly after it was found, but still offered up enough evidence to convince many people it’s the real deal.

The supposed next generation iPhone first appeared on Engadget with a report that someone found the phone in a bar in San Jose. Apparently the phone worked at first, giving the finders a look at the interface, but later stopped working completely. Assuming the device is a prototype, including a remote kill switch makes sense because you never know when your unreleased product might fall into the wrong hands — like in a San Jose bar.

What the device is missing, however, are the tell-tale markings that identify it as a legit prototype device. Namely, identifier tags. Prototype devices — assuming they ever make it outside the lab — are typically labeled and tagged very clearly, so there’s no mistaking the device for a shipping product. The phone Engadget showed didn’t have any tags, which makes it far less likely that it really is an Apple prototype, but without any form of confirmation or denial from Apple, it’s still a possibility.

Some other features of the phone have cropped up, too:

  • 80 GB Storage The new iPhone apparently sports 80 GB of storage, which simply makes no sense. Apple uses flash RAM for the iPhone’s storage, and doesn’t come in 80 GB capacities. The current iPhone, iPod touch and iPad offer a perfect example of how storage capacities progress: 8 GB, 16 GB, 32 GB and 64 GB. Of course, Apple could gang up mismatched RAM chip sizes to make an 80 GB capacity, but considering the company’s track record so far, that doesn’t seem likely.
  • Glass Back On first glance, the idea of a glass back for an iPhone seems like a ridiculously far-fetched idea. If you replace “glass” with a glass-like material, however, like “ceramic,” then the alleged new back material for the iPhone makes sense. In fact, Apple applied for a patent in late 2006 that describes such a material. The ceramic-type material Apple described is made from materials like zircona and amumina, can be extruded as a single piece so it doesn’t include any seams, and also happens to be radio transparent, which sounds like a great match for the iPhone.
  • Removable Battery Apple has been moving away from removable batteries in its products, and never offered an iPhone or iPod with a removable battery. The likelihood that the company would change course and offer an iPhone with a removable battery now doesn’t fit with the Apple’s established pattern — especially since doing so would add bulk to the device and would break the smooth unibody styling found on the rest of the company’s products.
  • Front Facing Camera Rumors of a front facing camera for the iPhone have been around about as long as the device has. It didn’t appear on the iPhone 3GS, it isn’t in the iPad, and it probably won’t be in the next iPhone model, either. Assuming for a moment that Apple does include a front facing camera in the next iPhone model, I still don’t expect it to support video chatting simply because without a stable camera, it’s difficult to keep your face in the camera’s view — and watching someone’s face jump around your screen is distracting and not likely something Apple is willing to accept.
  • MicroSIM Card Moving to MicroSIM cards for the iPhone seems perfectly reasonable since Apple has already done so with the iPad. Other mobile phone manufacturers have already done the same, too.

The case for the supposed iPhone prototype seems too bulky for an actual Apple product, but that isn’t reason enough to discount the photos as fake. Cases built in-house to hold test bed devices are common, and they certainly wouldn’t show the elegance found in the designs of actual shipping products.

Based on the evidence available so far, I’m still too skeptical to jump in and say the photos Engadget published are from an actual prototype next generation iPhone, but they are compelling enough to make me wonder what Apple really is cooking up for the next iPhone update. Since Apple typically releases new iPhone models around July, we probably won’t have to wait too long to find out.

Update: Gizmodo Goes Hands On with the iPhone Prototype

Gizmodo jumped into the lost iPhone prototype game on Monday with their own hands on video of the device, along with several photos. The images are very compelling, and while they may not be from a finalized version of the next generation iPhone, it seems likely that they did get their hands on a device that started its life in a Cupertino lab.

The Gizmodo images show a side-by-sde comparison with an iPhone 3GS for size comparison. Unfortunately, there aren’t any images showing the alleged next generation iPhone’s display. Instead, the device appears to be off in every photo. That said, Gizmodo claimed that the device did show the standard “Connect to iTunes” activation screen.

The photos and video show what appears to be a front facing camera, along with a larger camera in the same location as current iPhone models along with a built-in flash. There also appears to be a microphone near the headphone jack, presumably to aid with noise cancellation for phone calls.

Apparently the screen on the device is slightly smaller than the iPhone 3GS display, and the SIM card slot has been moved to the side from the top. The flat sides, along with the volume buttons, look to be metal, and the back is some plastic-type material. Aluminum sides would fit with the current Apple product style, and a plastic-like back could be just plastic, or possibly the ceramic-like material the company filed to patent in 2006.

The case also includes three distinct seams, which doesn’t have that Apple feel or Jonathan Ive style. Instead, if this is an actual Apple prototype, the case is likely a pre-production sample.

Adding to the mystery, Daring Fireball’s John Gruber claimed that Apple did lose a prototype and considers its missing unit stolen. Even if the device Gizmodo has turns out to be something different from the next iPhone Apple ships, there’s a good chance the company’s lawyers are going to be very interested in finding out exactly how the publication managed to get its hands on the hardware.

I’m still not convinced this is what Apple will ship as the next generation iPhone, but it seems pretty likely that Gizmodo managed to get its hands on a prototype unit, and Apple will come looking for it.