Apple To Gizmodo: You’ve Had Your Fun, Hand Over The Phone

A few weeks after requiring iPad developers to work with devices chained to tables in windowless rooms, famously secretive Apple is in the awkward position of having to ask Gawker Media’s Gizmodo oh, so politely to give back an iPhone prototype left in a bar. No threats over buying misbegotten goods (yet) or any confirmation that what Gizmodo acquired for $5,000 is actually a prototype of the iPhone 4G. Just a few simple sentences in a letter to Gizmodo Editorial Director Brian Lam from Apple General Counsel Bruce Sewell, then posted on the gadget blog’s site: “It has come to our attention that Gizmodo is currently in possession of a device that belongs to Apple (NSDQ: AAPL). This letter constitutes a formal request that you return the device to Apple. Please let me know where to pick up the unit.”

The letter, writes Lam, was the result of phone calls asking for the device and his insistence that it be claimed on the record. That in turn gave him the chance to claim Gizmodo had no idea that device was stolen when they bought it; “Now that we definitely know it’s not some knockoff, and it really is Apple’s, I’m happy to see it returned to its rightful owner.” This is the capper to an odd series of events that started when a hapless Apple employee — outed Monday by Gizmodo — had a beer too many at a bar in Redwood City Mar. 18 and left his iPhone behind. A fellow bar patron, who took it instead of turning it over to the bar as lost, later opened the case and discovered the iPhone 3GS actually was covering another device. He told Gizmodo he saw the Apple employee’s Facebook page on the iPhone before it was wiped and tried unsuccessfully to return the device to Apple.

The phone was wiped via the MobileMe’s “lost” feature, keeping Gizmodo and others from trying it as a phone or with iTunes, But the site gave the device a thorough tech review, zoning in on a micro-SIM card; a front camera with flash; a new, more industrial design; and what looks like efforts to improve reception.

Was it worth the $5,000? That, and then some in publicity/traffic. At last check, just one of the posts had more than 28,000 tweets, more than 3.7 million page views and more than 1,870 comments. Understandable from Gizmodo’s perspective. Does that make the whole incident — and the paycheck journalism involved — feel any less, well, slithery? Not so much. Wish they’d been able to get the scoop without buying something they had to know the seller didn’t have the right to.

Meanwhile Apple, which reports earnings Tuesday afternoon, confirmed that Gizmodo had its device but not what it was or what level of prototype it might be. That’s a whiteboard for investors and analysts to scribble on as they try to decide how to factor in the next-gen iPhone.

It’s not too late to register for our State of Gadget Media event tomorrow in NYC.