Take a look at the pictured car, above. Is there anything unusual about it? The picture comes from the UK online car site, Autoexpress, and is the sort you will frequently see in car magazines who wish to appraise their readers of new models about to hit the market. This is of keen interest to potential purchasers, as well as car manufacturing competitors in terms of both the nature of their models, as well as release dates.
Often, car journalists will plaster the front of magazines with scoops of the next very popular vehicle, and it’s always possible that news of an impending update may delay the purchase of current models by prospective buyers, or at least cause them to drive a much harder bargain for the current model. Apple followers know full well the times to delay a purchase of an Apple product at certain times of the year. In the past, this was around Macworld in January.
Why the car’s disguise then? Well, clearly, after the prototypes are driven around proprietary performance tracks designed to simulate a variety of motoring conditions, at some point, “real world” testing needs to take place in the sort of conditions purchasers will use the car, but incognito. The Australian outback is often used by car manufacturers to really give their cars a workout. Boeing too, in testing out their new aircraft for certification, will fly them into all manner of conditions world wide, as well as use the time for publicity purposes. It’s unfeasible to disguise the aircraft of course, and indeed mockups of what it will look like, inside and out, are known well in advance of firm orders. The analogy only goes so far. (The 747 model below is not some disguised next model, but a modified 747 to transport 787 parts)
But the car analogy should now be obvious to those following the Apple/Gizmodo/iPhone prototype story. Soon to be released products are literally road-tested. Drivers of test cars are highly skilled, perhaps have an engineering background, but they’re not lowly courier van drivers. They have special skills necessary for evaluating the car’s performance. But is there any doubt they are NOT in the upper echelons of management?
So let’s imagine for a moment the driver of the car, above, has taken it out for an evaluation drive. It’s clearly disguised so as not to reveal its final appearance, and in this case no effort is made to disguise the disguise, unlike the iPhone. For non-car watchers, its appearance might only be that of an unusual colour scheme and bonnet protector. For those who follow auto-manufacturing, the disguise is clear, and they might want to snap a few pictures with the car on the open road, and find an eager buyer, like an auto-paparazzi. No harm done, no laws broken, as long as no entry is unlawfully made to take pictures inside the car or under the hood. As it is, auto-journalists even camp out at test tracks hoping to get pictures of undisguised cars getting the full work out, and occasionally we see long-distance grainy shots on magazine covers, screaming “Scoop!” Take a look, below, at 2007 Autoexpress story of a new Jaguar model about to be released. It’s Spy vs Spy stuff! (Note too the effort of the magazine to protect the facial ID of the driver(s).)
Let’s continue to imagine our test driver pulls over and runs into a bar because he desperately needs a restroom. As he asks the bartender where to go, he inadvertently leaves his car keys, with car registration ID, on the counter. Coming out from the restroom, he passes by the bar’s huge TV playing the world series final and the game’s all even. Let’s add some zest to it by suggesting his team is in the final which captures his interest in a moment of supreme relaxation following his restroom distress. An hour later, still at the bar, his team wins, and he high-fives all the other bar customers. A very human moment of losing oneself in an exciting event, a little like the bar discovers it’s also your birthday and everyone joins in the celebrations.
Meanwhile, the car keys left on the bar near the entrance have been knocked to the ground accidentally, where another patron has picked them up. Let’s imagine for a moment the patron glances at the keys, and notes the car registration number. He looks through the bar window and matches car to keys. But it’s a most unusual looking car. Let’s now imagine the patron is something of a car afficionado and knows a disguised new model when he sees one. What to do?
Does he call out in the bar, “Hey anyone lose a set of keys?” or “Hey, who owns the funny looking car out there – I think these are your keys”. Or does he simply hand the keys to the bartender saying, “I found these on the floor”?
If we are to take the Gizmodo line, having identified the car as say a Honda (which has research facilities nearby), he instead rings Honda headquarters’ 800 number to report he has the keys to a some funny looking Honda, who, as secretive as Apple, has no idea about any research car out in the wild, but will get back to him anyway. Our key finding patron then goes to the car, uses the key to open it (perhaps it’s a new fangled electronic opening device too) and locates the driver’s wallet and driver’s license with picture ID on the front seat. So he knows now the identity of the driver.
But instead of going back inside the bar to locate the driver, he drives the car home, where he removes all the disguising devices, takes pictures, and emails various car magazines with a potential scoop. He caused no damage to the car, used the keys to start it, and drove it without breaking any road laws, such as speeding or going through a stop sign or a one-way street the wrong way. And he didn’t hot wire the car, but used the rightful key. (At this point, it should be dawning on some readers that he has in fact stolen the car, even if he used the right key, no?)
Meanwhile, our evaluation driver has been up and down the bar trying to retrace where he might have left his keys, hopeful that someone has handed them in. After an hour or so, he gives up, calls his boss at the Honda research centre, and using a new wireless GPS device, the car is immobilized. The GPS system is still to be finalised however, and can’t be used to locate the car. Honda security is called in to try and locate the car, rather than advise police about a missing experimental car which would see its disappearance turn into a media circus.
In the days that follow, the driver keeps ringing the bar to see if the keys have turned up, the car has been returned or if someone noticed the patron getting into the car. But soon enough, an edgy car review website announces they have all the goodies on Honda’s next Accord (one of the US’s best selling cars), and here are the teardown pictures of its insides and outsides. And they tell the world they paid $250,000 to obtain the car (even though it had been mooted to sell for about $30,000). Readers of course are entitled to ask why pay so much for a car that’s about to be released in a few months anyway, but the story is the scoop and resultant website hits, not the use of the car.
And that, dear reader, is what Gizmodo, Jason Chen, and the mystery iPhone finder did, on Gizmodo’s own admission.
So, should Honda do nothing, because following their written request having seen the website announcement, the auto magazine gave back the Honda, although perhaps not in quite the same condition they found it. I mean, no damage done; after all, you’ve got back your property, right? Wrong! Apart from the initial theft, and receiving stolen goods, there is the problem of publication of trade secrets. Apple, like Honda, has every right to inform the FBI, or in this case REACT, of the theft, whether or not it is part of a delegation to the FBI of manufacturers seeking to reduce the plundering of their IP and its selling to the highest bidder, which seems to have occurred in this case. There is no conflict of interest at all. It’s like saying the Police Commissioner should ask his or her force not to investigate a break in at their office where important legal documents have been taken, regarding an upcoming serious criminal trial.
That the auto magazine believes that it can get away with its receiving the car (and they were told it could no longer be driven, yet still organised to have it put on a flatloader and driven to their offices) because of journalist shield laws would be preposterous. They know it, any thinking person knows it, and sooner or later, the court system in California would make an official decision on it, as they will with Gizmodo.
Those that dismiss the story as Apple acting like a bully, or a waste of police resources because the police never helped much when their car was stolen, or that Apple is corrupting the journalism process as in this foolish Time blog article, have their heads firmly in places the sun don’t shine.
We’re talking here of a business worth millions if not billions of dollars (read, jobs with a small J) being thwarted by those who are willing to flout the law and think by being witty bloggers they are immune from prosecution.
This matter will only get more interesting in the next few weeks. Once the identity of the mystery key finder (that is, iPhone “finder”) is known, and the full story comes out, along with a few surprises to be sure, a lot of journalists and lawyers will have much omelette on their faces.
Watch and wait.