Did Apple’s new iPhone get nicked?

Has an early version of the next iPhone really been stolen from the floor of a bar in California? That’s the question being asked across the blogosphere after pictures have emerged on several sites of a phone said to be an early model of the next-generation iPhone.

Gadget blogs (and fierce rivals) Engadget and Gizmodo both published pictures of a device said to have been found in a bar somewhere in California. Engadget’s model was claimed to have been discovered in San Jose and to sport 80GB of storage and a front-facing camera. Gizmodo’s pictures are said to be of a phone found in Redwood City (45 kilometres away from Redwood City) and offer much more detail. Features Gizmodo notes include a larger battery a plastic back rather than aluminium (which would improve 3G reception) and separate volume buttons which might also double as camera controls.

Is it a prototype iPhone? Did it stop working after being dipped in beer? No-one really knows. (picture courtesy of Engadget)

While Apple has been happy to promote the features of iPhone OS 4.0 which include limited multitasking and improved email integration and has released an SDK for the platform it has kept details of planned hardware changes close to its chest.

Indeed Apple hasn’t even confirmed that an “iPhone 4G” is in the works but most market watchers assume it will stick to the pattern it has established of releasing a major iPhone hardware update mid-year. The Daring Fireball blog has said that Apple considers the phone “stolen” though if it is the real deal the most likely explanation would seem to be that an Apple employee misplaced it.

Apple famously exerts enormous amounts of effort in trying to prevent details of its new designs becoming public so the disclosure is doubly embarrassing for the company. As ever Apple isn’t responding to requests for comment about the issue but that hasn’t stopped speculation running rampant.

One conspiracy theory suggests that the entire phone theft might be part of a carefully orchestrated publicity campaign designed to distract people from the much-delayed release of the iPad in international markets or to gauge interest in the new design. Cupertino where Apple’s HQ is located is between the two bar locations where the phone is said to have been found. On the other hand if there’s any company doesn’t need to work too hard on getting publicity or getting people to line up for new products it’s Apple.