In the dramatic arts, there is a common plot element that shows up in many books, movies and TV shows that is known as a MacGuffin. Generally, Alfred Hitchcock is credited with the invention of the MacGuffin and was certainly a frequent user of the same in his various, although the concept is simple and common enough that it is highly unlikely that someone else didn’t use one first (although Hitchcock was arguably the one who gave the MacGuffin its name.) Basically, a MacGuffin is an object in a story that is designed to move the plot along, but otherwise serves no real purpose. In most cases, this means that a MacGuffin acts as a sort of narrative football to be passed around and chased after by the various parties in the story in an attempt to capture the object and thus gain victory. Common examples of well-known MacGuffins include the Maltese Falcon from the movie of the same name, the various briefcases full of stolen intelligence and cash found throughout the spy genre, and even something like Captain Ahab’s white whale in Moby-Dick serves much the same purpose in that particular story. In the latter example, the White Whale has very little direct involvement in the story (at least until the end,) it just mostly serves as an object for Captain Ahab to obsess over, chase around in an unwise fashion and eventually lose his sanity (among other things) over. Ultimately Moby-Dick becomes a book about that is much more about some guy losing his mind than it is a book about a whale hunt.
Although MacGuffins are quite common in the literary and performing arts, we don’t usually think about these in terms of real-life scenarios. And yet over the course of the past couple of weeks an interesting little drama has played itself out in the tech Blogs for which the description seems to fit quite well. As most people who haven’t been living under a rock have probably heard by now (the whole incident has been covered in a fair bit of detail by mainstream media sources as well as Blogs,) a prototype of what is believed to be Apple’s next iPhone was lost by an Apple engineer in a bar near their Cupertino headquarters. This was found by another patron in the bar, who after making what appears to have been a token effort to return it back to someone at Apple, was paid $5,000 for the iPhone by gadget blog Gizmodo. Gizmodo then proceeded to do what any vaguely tabloidish gadget Blog would do, and posted a major exposé on the device, including a full disassembly. They then followed this up with a series of stories explaining (or speculating, depending on who you ask) about how the device was lost, how it was found, how they got a hold of it, and ultimately how it was returned to Apple following an on-the-record request for it to be returned. The original iPhone 4G story has now received over 9 million hits as of this writing, and within hours after it was posted the story also found its way onto quite a few mainstream media websites by way of the newswires.
Of course, given Apple’s longstanding reputation for being extremely secretive (and allegedly heavy-handed in its enforcement of that secrecy,) it is highly unlikely that the story was going to end there. Sure enough, last Saturday a search warrant was executed against Gizmodo editor Jason Chen’s house, and several computers and other devices were seized by a computer crime task force. From this point the details are sketchy, but about the only thing that’s certain at this point is that there’s a good chance this whole thing will get ugly before the dust settles. I don’t intend to get into questions regarding the legality of the whole situation on either end of the debate, but for us gadget consumers out there who may or may not have an interest in purchasing this next iPhone when it does come out, the question is this: What do we know about the new iPhone now that we wouldn’t have known otherwise? The answer: Very little.
When Gizmodo got hold of this iPhone prototype it had already been remote wiped by Apple, leaving it in an unusable state. A few technical details were able to be gleaned from the disassembly and physical appearance of the device, but the vast majority of people who might be future users of one of these devices are unlikely to care much about what type of SIM card is being used or whose components are being used inside. The phone’s operating system (iPhone OS 4.0) has already been formally introduced at an Apple press conference, and when this is combined with Apple’s history of launching new iPhones in June, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that there is a high likelihood of a new iPhone model coming out in a couple of months. After the initial story ran on Gizmodo, a number of follow-up posts were made throughout the course of the next week, but as the two or three tidbits of interesting info to be gleaned from their $5,000 purchase seem to have been exhausted within the first three paragraphs of the first post, the vast majority of these posts amounted to little more than gloating. For their part, Apple seems to be up to their old tricks, allegedly threatening criminal charges against both the person who found the lost iPhone and Jason Chen and calling in the police to cover for their security breach. I’ll leave the legal arguments and the allegations to other Bloggers, but I’m sure this will either be settled as quietly as possible and swept under the proverbial rug, or it’ll drag on in a protracted and highly exposed legal battle. Either way, I’m sure we’ll all thoroughly sick of this by the time it’s done.
But getting back to my original point, when everything is said and done here, what we have here is a classic real-life example of the usually fictional MacGuffin. Gizmodo’s exposé coverage of the lost prototype iPhone ultimately boils down to a lot of “Look at us, we got a prototype iPhone!” blathering. Apple seems to have gone off the deep end in their efforts to get their lost iPhone back and punish those who exploited the leak. Yet in the end, for all the various drama that has gone on here, very little of substance has actually been learned by the general public about the new iPhone, and even less has been learned that someone couldn’t have already figured out on their own anyway. So basically, a whole lot of commotion has been made over a non-functioning cell phone, and will continue to be made over a non-functioning cell phone for some time. I guess someone’s got to find some way to keep things interesting around here, right?
(Note: If Apple ever actually puts the name “MacGuffin” on one of their computers, we’ll know that they’ve run desperately short on ideas.)