Almost everything Apple makes leaks. Sometimes it’s months before it’s held up onstage as the platonic ideal of a thing the enraptured crowd in front of it has been imagining for months, or maybe years (even as it inevitably disappoints them for not living up to their wild imaginations). Sometimes it’s just a day before. A smudgy shot from a cellphone camera, or a gallery of highly detailed photos and video. It all leaks.
The iPhone 4 was notable as a leak not only in how complete and spectacular it was — but in the fact that it came from straight from within Apple (if only by accident). Leaks of that nature, stolen glimpses of the future, almost never come from within Apple. (Leaks from within Apple tend to look like this or this — words and details, not photos, certainly not high quality ones.) The culture doesn’t allow it. Nor do the elaborate security systems Apple’s architected to keep its secrets safe.
The leaks usually come from outside. Sometimes upper level leaks come from the partners Apple has to trust, like AT&T, as much it would prefer not to. And there’s a long, winding supply chain attached to the iPhone in your pocket that snakes through multiple companies and countries. While just 47,000 people work at Apple in the US (mostly in Apple Stores), over 700,000 people work on Apple products for foreign contractors, the majority at Foxconn, but also scattered across companies you’ve never heard of. The iPhone doesn’t spring fully formed from the sculpted skull of Jony Ive: There are materials to procure, parts to manufacture, pieces to assemble. And you can’t make tens of millions of iPhones and all the parts that go into them without some human hands touching them. And occasionally dropping them in the laps of other people.
The places that pick them up are often suppliers like GlobalPartsDirect or repair shops in the in the Chinese parts trade. That’s the origin of what most people now presume to be a legitimate unibody shell for a new iPhone, 9to5Mac’s Seth Weintraub, who was the first to reveal it the world, confirms to me. That’s how Hong Kong-based E TradeSupply, a “wireless repair parts supplier,” procured the same shell, which it shows off in detail in both photos and video. It’s possibly a prototype or well-designed and manufactured (and stunningly logical) Chinese knockoff part — there’s a small cottage industry of fake future iPhone parts — that won’t make it to the next iPhone that actually hits store shelves. But it’s nonetheless a part of an economy that’s hidden and maybe more than a little grey, one with low supply and high demand, one that’s made Vietnamese site Tinhte.vn the biggest gadget scoops site in the world. Just Google “iPhone parts leak.”
It’s possible that CEO Tim Cook will be able to secrete even more silence from his tens of thousands of Apple employees, stamping out leaks like this one when he talks about how Apple’s going to “double down on secrecy.” But I suspect he’s going to find that making tens of millions phones is a lot easier than making a million people keep their mouth shut.