The iPhone Prototype is Gone. But Not, One Hopes, Gone Forever.

By  |  Tuesday, March 10, 2009 at 4:56 pm

iPhone PrototypeFile this one away under “Any Other Outcome Would Have Been Startling.” Apple has had the eBay auction for what was supposedly two 2006 iPhone prototypes pulled. It also had eBay yank the interesting very interesting video walkthrough of one of the phone’s rudimentary user interfaces.

As far as I know, Apple hasn’t acknowledged that the proto-UI was real, but asking for it to be pulled from YouTube is a near-acknowledgement, at least. After all, how could Apple file a copyright claim if it weren’t for a real piece of Apple software?

Apple Takedown

You gotta think that Apple is most likely entirely within its rights here, both legally and ethically. It’s hard to imagine that it would allow early prototype products to be owned by anyone other than the company itself, or even to put them in the hands of an employee without a clear agreement that the phones belonged to Apple. If Apple is clearly the owner of the two prototypes, it’s reasonable enough to pull the eBay auction…and probably reasonable, too, to take down the YouTube video. (At least I know I’d be irked if someone shot and uploaded video of personal possessions of mine that I didn’t particularly want the world to see.)

I don’t know what’s going to happen to the two phones in question. Is Apple going to insist they be returned? A couple of weeks ago, it demanded that an eBay auction for a not particularly interesting pre-release iPod be ended, and I’m not sure what became of that iPod–its owner’s blog simply says it’s “no longer available.”

But here’s the thing–I think it would be awful if the iPhone with the proto-OS just vanished into some warehouse at Apple and was never seen again, like a replay of the last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark:

Raiders of the Lost Ark

The development of personal technology is one of the biggest stories of our time; Apple is arguably (and maybe inarguably) the single most important company at the center of that story. The iPhone is, in other words, history. History should be documented, and I very much hope that Apple is filing away important documents and artifacts relating to the development of its products. Such as early iPhone prototypes.

I’m not arguing that Apple should turn over its archives to the Computer History Museum (although, hey, it sounds like a good idea to me) or that it’s required to share items with people doing serious research on its history right now (although, hey, that also sounds like a good idea to me). But I think people will be writing about Apple and its products a century from now–and even two or three centuries from now–and they’ll understand what they’re documenting far better if artifacts exist somewhere where historians can get their hands on them.

Walt Disney, a man who I’d compare Steve Jobs to even if the latter hadn’t bootstrapped Pixar and ended up on the Disney board, understood that it was worth documenting his company from the get-go. All the stuff he saved became the foundation of the Disney Archives, an invaluable resource for those studying the history of animation. (It’s possible to criticize the Disney company’s management of those archives–in recent years it’s shut off access for most outsiders–but for decades they were accessible to those who needed them.)

So I hope that even if we don’t know about it, there is an Apple archives somewhere. You just know it would be a fascinating place to spend some time…


Read more: 

3 Comments For This Post

  1. Wes Felter Says:

    I forgot where I read this story: When Steve Jobs returned to Apple, he found the archives and ordered them to be thrown away because they were taking up space. Someone shipped the stuff to Stanford instead. I bet they’re destroying iPhone prototypes.

  2. Harry McCracken Says:

    Here’s a story on the Stanford deal from 1997 (yup, right after Jobs returned):

    Don’t know whether the Stanford collection stops at 1997, or whether more stuff is going there. But I may look into whether it’s open for researchers like, oh, myself.

    There are plenty of Jobs quotes about how it’s poisonous to look back, wallow in one’s history, etc., etc. And not looking back certainly works for him. But SOMEBODY needs to look back at Apple, and I hope they have the resources to do so.


  3. Benj Edwards Says:

    I had the feeling that this auction would be taken down, so I grabbed all the images and info on the prototype before Apple had it yanked. It may come in handy some day when I have to write a history of the iPhone.

    You’re right, Harry. I truly hope Apple appreciates its history enough to save documents on and prototypes of its work. It’s incredibly important stuff. Once Steve Jobs leaves Apple some day (though I’m not looking forward to it), we will probably see a lot more history stuff leaking out.