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A look at the Apple ‘Skankphone’, built before the original iPhone release (thenextweb.com)
170 points by striking on Oct 6, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 65 comments

I think it's incredibly interesting that Apple is one of but a handful of companies that seems to enjoy a steady proliferation and preservation of its past company lore, both in the popular media and amongst technologists. People take a great deal of interest in the historical artifacts this company produces; for an outsider, it really stands out as unusual.

I can only think of a few other companies that manage this feat. Nintendo's history seems to be rather frequently circulated (and I don't follow video gaming blogs, though I do occasionally play their games). Intel, Compaq, and IBM also see historical items published, but it's mostly concerning events that predate the 90's, a time when these companies were either much more visible or had a more prominent role. I've not seen much published about the past two decades of history for any other tech company at the same level as Apple.

The histories of other companies seem to be given a much more technical treatment: hardware schematics, design constraints, sourcing problems, blow-by-blow accounts, etc. That might just be because many of the Apple anecdotes are published as "fluff" for non-technologists; Apple also sees its share of technical history published, too.

Maybe I'm just blind to everything else or I'm biased in a particular way, but it certainly feels like we're telling a particular narrative here. If I were a future historian looking back, this might cloud my perspective. Everything seems to be about Apple. Am I wrong?

It has nothing to do with Apple. It has to do with a successful product.

I saw how the iPhone was received at the time. In my environment of Nokia enthusiastics in Europe it was received with extreme skepticism.

Everybody said: "A phone where your fingers cloud the screen never will take off". "The battery lasts so little for a phone". "No way I am using a phone with the battery soldered". "I can't type while in the class, meeting or whatever", "glass phones are so fragile"...

Three years later, all of them will be using an iPhone or iPhone-like phone.

People value success histories, because knowing what is going to success is really useful.

E.g I bought Apple stock before the iPhone launch because there were rumors that Apple would be launching it, and I supposed that Apple were going to do it right after the people of "Telefonica"(a european telecomunications company) offering me something like 60 dollars for the entire rights of my smartphone App, which took months to make and won a big contest as people loved it.

It was so monopolized market that was a big opportunity for disruption.

I won a lot of money with the Apple stock, after that I bought stock from companies like ARM holdings and device sensors as I supposed that were going to benefit from a boom in smartphones and tablets later.

I supposed it right and the money I earned was extremely useful in making my own company later.

On the other hand, I personally met the guy that founded twitter and did not invested on his company, because it was a startup like any other.

There is value in knowing what is going to success, and this is the reason people is interested in success stories, as learning about them let them identify future success.

People care about Apple products only because Apple has a surprisingly high level of recent successes.

It wasn't just the iPhone. Remember the Slashdot review of the iPod? "No wireless, less space than a Nomad. Lame."

I think we all remember that review, because it gets brought out any time someone criticises an Apple product at launch.

In any case, I feel like it's a little unfair to judge in hindsight like that. It had no PC compatibility, nor USB connectivity. To anyone other than a Mac user it was a dud. At the time.

A lot of the ipods were overpriced and underfeatured. They were shiny, but didn't always work as well as competitors. I once bought a video ipod - that was a mistake. And no radio? Crazy.

Apple has a long history of ditching features that power users demand and call omission "crazy", then seeing the industry ditch those same features a few years later.

Floppy drives. CD drives. Ethernet ports. Flash support.

Well power users complain because they still need to use those things. Mainstram users don't. I can remember starting my career well after the introduction of USB flash drives and still getting software on CD or even floppy if we went back a few versions. We laughed at the fact that our computers still had floppy drives even while we were loading software from a handful of the bastards.

If you buy a device that lacks flash support, and five years later everyone else finally gets around to trying to stop making things in flash, then it was a stupid idea for the device to lack flash support at the time you bought it.

Sure, a device can still be wildly successful even if its missing something important, but that doesn't magically make it a good idea at the time it was done.

The replacements for flash suffered from poor performance for a long time.

Apple's ditching Flash with essentially no downsides beyond short-lived and short-sighted marketing mockery from competitors is evidence it wasn't a "stupid idea".

Flash still suffers from poor performance to this day, let alone back then, and even on full desktop devices (hell, it'll turn on a Mac Pro's fans). Flash on phones was a miserable idea to start with.

I like how you assume that anyone who disagrees with you must just be some kind of an idiot who bases his opinions off of marketing gimmicks and the opinions of Apple's competitors.

I was basing my opinion off of my personal experiences. For years after IOS devices hit the market, flash dominated certain types of content on the web. The lack of flash support meant that a user couldn't really view these sites on an IOS device.

Also, in spite of flash's performance issues, for a long time it seemed to perform better than HTML5-based video players. Youtube's HTML5 player remained an opt-in experimental feature for so long for a reason, it simply didn't work as well as the normal player.

And yet, in this specific instance, despite the downmodders, the radio is a feature added to the iPod despite years of Apple naysaying. It is the direct opposite of what you're claiming - Apple held out against the tide, then caved.

>> "They were shiny, but didn't always work as well as competitors."

Actually the iPod had a click wheel interface that left the competition in the dust and catapulted Apple from a niche computer company for designers to a world power. Maybe you liked your Sony mp3-man better, but the rest of the world didn't care for it. That's just history.

I never looked at an iPod until at least the 4th gen, although fairly expensive compared to the competition, it had 60Gb space on the photo model. I didn't care about that much space for music, but it also doubled up as an external hard disk! I bought a 5th gen in the end, which I still own. Most of my music plays off my phone so it was not worth upgrading but I still keep it synced and the battery lasts longer than phone!

And yet Apple probably makes billions of dollars per year from the iPod and it has become almost the colloqual term for "portable digital music player". Crazy.

Not crazy; marketing.

Apple's marketing is very good, and it gets a lot of positive press (read: free positive marketing). One of their most successful plays, in my opinion, is to have become almost identified with "high-tech" consumer gadgetry. They have a target market that consists mainly of affluent people who are not only willing to spend their cash on consumer electronics, but desire to do so in a specific way that helps them identify as a "techy" or "tech geek" or what have you. Apple's target market is a set of people who are paying for a product as much because it has the Apple logo on it as because of what it does. For better or worse.

The point is it was still a huge success.

No: that product was not a success. A later product in the same product line released years later that had more benefits and fewer limitations became a huge success, but the original iPod was actually a flop that only held on to its mediocre sales due to brand loyalty, and its limited storage space and requirement to sync via a physical FireWire cable (as opposed to even USB) were in fact key to this failure.

(In particular, I will point out that the iTunes Music Store experience was what made the iPod really stand out, and that wasn't launched until 2003, in time for the 2004 release of the first truly successful iPod model, which also had a reasonable amount of storage and USB support.)

There is an awkward tendency in this space to fault people judging a specific product because they aren't taking into account that the same product line next year might actually be good, but unless users of the iPod are going to get a free upgrade next year, that's really a disingenuous way of judging new hardware.

I thought it wouldn't sell at all, but it sold quite well, made a good profit, and became a huge buzzword overnight. Yeah I think it was a success.

A huge success eventually. It kind of limped along until Apple had thrown enough money at it to make it stick (as well as making it PC compatible).

"Things really took off when Apple introduced the fourth generation(4G) iPod in July 2004. For the first time, the iPod could sync to PCs using USB instead of FireWire, a port that most PCs did not have. "


It may be because Apple's mission has been to design what they consider to be revolutionary products, not from a hardware specifications standpoint, but from a design and UX standpoint.

At least Steve Jobs' Apple did that with iPod, iPhone, and iPad and even the iMac to some degree. The Apple Watch may be viewed that way in a few years but it doesn't seem like it yet.

The problem with the watch is that it's in a space where its not clear there's any relevant need for that product to exist, commercially.

The MP3 player was the evolution of the CD player, which was the evolution of the walkman, which was the evolution of the boom box etc...going all the way back to minstrels. Music and its transportability have always been a big deal and improving that core function is a big deal.

The watch....time is important, but it is solved problem in that space, and it's not clear that it makes any thing else better (i.e. you implicitly need to use two-hands to control a watch interface, you can handle a phone with just 1).

You're right. Other companies are doing the same thing as Apple: prototyping, testing, iterating. Just not at the scale or speed that Apple does it. The media interest in Apple justifies the approach - with the curtains and the smoke and mirrors, other companies don't have to bother with all that. Apple has the scale, diligence and is being held up as the blueprint of how to do things the right way. There's no harm in it being a story about Apple, as long as historians realise that Apple didn't invent or make the only smartphones.

Perhaps for reasons of cost, the prototypes of the phones from non-Apple companies were "re-purposed" e.g. for destructive testing and therefore no longer exist.

edit: perhaps if other companies had the mindset Apple has (no limits, not even scale) then they would have to start introducing smoke and mirrors.

Another thing I see is that Apple, unlike the vast majority of competitors, have very limited product ranges.

This means that as a new iteration is developed, every Apple fan is focussed on that team's output. More so when the company decides to venture into a new area altogether (smartphones).

When Samsung produces a new flagship phone (let's say a new Galaxy smartphone), there's a good chance that a Samsung fan will actually have their eyes on another of the companies lines - the Ace, the Note, etc.

This very narrow product focus has helped them direct the attention of users and the media.

Ask any loyal Apple smartphone user worldwide which smartphone they're looking forward to most, it'll be the next iPhone. Ask the same of any loyal Samsung/Sony/LG user and there's a good chance it won't be the global flagship device they mention.

(FWIW, I say this as someone who isn't very fond of Apple or their products, but I appreciate their design and marketing prowess, in most cases)

Haven't they moved away from this trend with the watch? I feel like it's way too customisable to be an Apple product.

It’s still only one product. The innards and the software are exactly the same, no matter which watch you buy. Functionally they are all identical.

The customisability of the exterior is something new, sure.

Don't forget, the iMac G3 had five plastic color cases for some reason. Apple also sells a range of iPhone/iPad cases. Also, a major early selling point on the iPad was the magnates to better integrate with a case.

"for some reason"

Yeah, cars should only come in one color, right?

The MacBook Air comes in one colour, as do nearly all of their current products. Sure you can put it in a case, or put another sticker on it.

You hit on something, but didn't follow it through. Yes, other companies are doing the same business process that Apple is doing: Prototyping, testing, iterating. I would argue that other companies are also doing it at the scale that Apple does. Google's Street View and Book scanning projects have a huge scale

As you said, the difference is how Apple does it: out of the public eye. While all companies do internal dev and iterate a few times, it feel like Apple will keep something internal and iterate on something longer than others. The result is a product that feel more developed. It is often said that Microsoft needs 3 public releases to make some good (i.e. Windows 3.x was the first reasonable and "good" GUI). Apple hides those first 2 internally.

Go back and watch the iPhone launch video. Try and remember how crappy phones were in 2007. There are a lot of things the iPhone famously didn't have. However, the iPhone didn't feel like a 1.0 product. Clearly they had done a ton of work and iteration to make the features that did ship pretty well done and a great UX.

The first Samsung smart watches introduced last year were jokes with terrible compromises. Will they get better? Sure, But that happens in public.

It is because it is still relevant. Apple and most of it's history will be forgotten once it's products start to suck or better ones come up.

And looking at mistakes they are making under Cook I hope it's further than I expect.

> It’s likely ‘skank’ in the name is a variation of ‘skunkworks’ which was the team working on the device.

Right, sure it is.

Urban Dictionary is nowhere near the mark then, with widely accepted definitions of the slang term from circa 2004: http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Skank

Edit: To be clear I read it as being "trashy", "tacky", "ugly". There are numerous definitions, I wouldn't have attributed (nor imagine anyone else attributing) the most unsavoury definitions to anything.

When was that brief period in the 2000s where ska got really popular and "skanking" re-entered the public consciousness as a dance style? Because I could imagine that inside Apple people thought of the "silhouettes dancing with iPods" ads as "skankPod" ads. That would make "Skankphone" a pretty obvious nickname for a phone project.

The term had been current for a while: Rockafeller Skank by Fatboy Slim was 1998.

I always though that was an ironic title, seeing as Skank and Skanky have always had a pretty strongly negative connotation in the southern UK dialects. Fatboy being a Brighton resident at the time, and pretty trendy, I assumed it was along the same lines.

Or Red Dwarf's "Rastabilly Skank", 1988.

This is the comment I was going to make. This is an /extremely/ apologetic spin from Owen Williams, and seems very unlikely to be accurate.

Sorry. We took a stab in the dark on that one really - I've reworded it as it was an incorrect assumption and shouldn't have been there. Many think 'skank' refers to the unpolished quality of the unfinished device.

Here, let me help those under 40.

"That's one skanky UI. There's no way Apple is shipping that!"

Yeah, just substitute with nasty.

I doubt it has anything to do with skunkworks or prostitutes.

My first thought was Skank as a verb, which fits best with the idea of a handicapped/faux iphone.

it might be an ode to boings skunkworks witch designed a lot of their specialized planes, like the SR-71 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skunk_Works

Lockheed Martin, not Boeing.

'Skank' as in 'awful'. More recently known as the 'Factory UI'.

If you see an iOS device running this software, it's almost always a factory escape (something that got boxed up too soon), not a prototype.

Prototypes usually have red colored PCBs.

If I remember correctly, you can see the PCB color of the M68 prototypes through the dock connector.

It is also conceivable that this was a prototype and it had a replacement case retrofitted which would explain why it has an FCCid.

There was also a case of a skankphone being lost and sold after it was loaned to a member of Cingular's senior management, that one wasn't a factory escape.

That phone interface has a very 80s retro-look to it, and I could imagine it appearing as a "futuristic smartphone" device in a movie from that decade. I honestly don't think it looks all that bad.

(Then again, I like artistically simple yet functional UIs and think gradients are far too overused now...)

Add some padding, coordinate the colors, change the font to something more distinctive, and you've got yourself a design language.

Isn't that called 'Windows Phone'? ;)

Super flat. Digital native.

I kept thinking it was an attempt to emulate LCARS.


The spacing and all of the rounded rectangle buttons vaguely reminded me of a Hypercard stack from back in the day.

This (tangentially) reminds me of the cool stuff they have like the network boot auto diagnostic image they have setup for the genius bar. Which from the look of it the last time i saw it, may still using the old carbon toolkit because. You can update definitions and config files for test routines a lot with no need to change the UI over the top of it, so it makes sense the UI could still be a Carbon 'results app' after all the tests run.

Am I allowed to admit that I secretly love that UI? So simple. So clean.

And flat UI !

It's incredible how much that UI screams "testing ui" and "default buttons" from some off-the-shelf ui toolkit. It's sufficiently functional, but not pretty at all. It's kinda cool to me to think that even Apple engineers use that style of UI when they don't have their own regular toolkit around.

Sufficiency for internal tools is the most important part of them.

One other thing of note is that the UI, especially the generic buttons, already followed the finger-sized buttons paradigm pretty closely. It looks like the only one that doesn't follow that is the list view for bookmarks; but, list views are hard and very different on phones than they are on computers, so it makes sense.

I'm pretty interested in that "Terminal" button on one of the screenshots. Having a *nux terminal available on my Android phone has proven to be pretty useful from time to time.

I think I'd almost be willing to use this interface if I got a terminal. Fortunately I have the option of jailbreaking.

You must be that one guy who enjoyed using an OpenMoko.

I'm not sure that I buy this is a "pre release" iPhone. The dead giveaway for me: a valid serial and IMEI on the backplate. No prototype would have this.

It looks more like a production iPhone running the (leaked) internal testing OS.

Lots of iPhone prototypes have surfaced with blank backplates, or IMEI inscriptions as a bunch of Xs. There's nothing separating this hardware from a production piece, which wouldn't be the case with the true prototype phones.

To me the so called hideous skankphone user interface looks a loot like the new flat design of iOS 7 with it's flat buttons and strong colours.

That was my first reaction, too.

Anyone know why it got yanked from eBay? are there more of these floating around that might pop up if so what would they go for?

Looks like it has a real FCC ID (hard to see in the picture) etched into the back. If so, it's not a "prototype" (Proto/EVT/DVT) unit.

More information from The iPhone Wiki: http://theiphonewiki.com/wiki/SkankPhone

some of that UI reminds me of my first (and last) time with gridbag layout. ouh.

It looks a lot like what Apple is pushing now, except that the buttons no longer have rounded corners and have vague icons instead of text.

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