By Harry McCracken | Tuesday, March 10, 2009 at 4:56 pm
File 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?
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:
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…