Spinning Gears :: Lessons from the Lost iPhone Saga

spinning gears

I had all but written off Gawker/Gizmodo’s exclusive This is Apple’s Next iPhone as an item that everyone and their mother has covered at least once – and while I admit that I was as intrigued as anyone else at the story and found it incredible and unbelievable as anyone else, I have to say that it probably is the biggest scoop pulled on Apple to date, and the biggest gaping hole in their veil of secrecy anyone’s ever found.

The poor guy who was field testing the next iPhone is likely out of work at the very least (although I hope Apple realizes he just made a mistake) and probably would like to find another job quickly at the very best (I wouldn’t want that rep to live down at work every day). Still, it was a pretty rookie mistake, but it’s not one that hasn’t been made by people at all levels of an organization in any company in the past.

This is why I was particularly interested when Anil Dash, a man for whom I have nothing but the utmost respect as a member of the technocrati, said this at Twitter earlier this week:

A simple case of human error shouldn’t be a big story. A company that treats such things as a firing offense is what’s worthy of criticism.

Now on the surface, I completely agree with Anil – he’s absolutely right. Every time someone in a company makes a mistake, it shouldn’t be some of the biggest news on the Net for the next several days, or if it keeps up like this, weeks. Additionally, I’d hate to be in his shoes, and hate to risk being fired or laid off because of a simple mistake – having a few too many beers at a bar and forgetting to pick up my phone.

Still, something about the statement nags at me a bit, and I wonder if Anil is being a little harsh because it’s clear we’re talking about Apple and the next iPhone here. Would he be as forgiving if, for example, a Microsoft engineer lost the next Zune HD prototype in a cab somewhere, and someone was smart enough to know what it was and sold it to Gawker for $5000? (the amount that Gawker paid – omitted from most of the articles about it – to get their hands on the prototype iPhone from their anonymous source)

Honestly, a Zune HD prototype found in the wild likely wouldn’t stir up quite so much media attention, but is that fact a good or bad thing? The reason why everyone’s busy covering this story – including mainstream media outlets like CNN – is because the iPhone is ridiculously popular in America and Apple has a long-held reputation for secrecy. Microsoft, for example, doesn’t have the popular product and doesn’t have the cone of silence over its labs. But when a 64GB version of the Zune HD was leaked on a couple of Web sites a few weeks back, tech blogs still covered it. Is that a bad thing, according to Anil?

What about a corporate employee or CEO who leaves a laptop on a plane or in a cab; a laptop that contains proprietary information about the company, or Personally Identifiable Information (PII) about their customers? Sure – it’s orders of magnitude of difference, but we’ve seen heavier media scrutiny when a government contractor leaves a hard drive in a cab than this kid leaving a prototype iPhone in a bar, and we summarily expect that contractor or CEO to be fired for their negligence.

Sure, sure – a laptop with personally identifiable data on it doesn’t just harm the company, it harms its customers and the people whose information has been compromised; the impact is much wider than a simple prototype cell phone, so the consequences have to be broader to match the transgression – but they’re both still simple cases of human error. If the government contractor or the bank that lost the personal data fires the employee who lost it, are they equally “worthy of scrutiny?”

I’m in the camp where I would sincerely hope that Apple doesn’t cut this poor kid loose – he’s obviously got talent and a history of trustworthiness or else he wouldn’t have gotten the prototype in the first place. Even so, I can’t deny that when a hard drive full of credit card numbers or social security numbers goes missing, we as the public expect someone to be held accountable – we’re not in quite the forgiving mood that Anil is in. It’s possible it’s just because one affects us directly and the other only affects people interested and even then in a tangential way.

Still – I have to wonder if Anil’s perspective is colored a bit. By what, I’m not certain. If he read this, he would probably take me to task for using the slippery slope argument too much, and acknowledge that 140 characters isn’t a lot of space to get into nuance, and I agree on both counts. Like I said at the beginning, I completely agree with him, I just wonder if we should be so forgiving in this case, or – more preferably – maybe we should be more forgiving in all such cases.

3 thoughts on “Spinning Gears :: Lessons from the Lost iPhone Saga

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