Reader Q&A: What are Apple prototypes like?

From time to time, we select a few reader questions to answer as best we can, and today’s comes from Kyle.

Kyle: On your site, you often mention prototypes of Apple devices. I’m kind of curious how Apple works their prototype process. What do the prototype devices look like in the semi-finished state? Do they look like pieces of hardware slapped together by a sloppy DIYer or like the polished devices that we know Apple is famous for?

First, thanks to Kyle for writing in and asking your question. We’re always happy to part the veils of the rumor-mongering process when we can, and give our readers further insight into what it’s like to have unique access & insight into the goings-on at Infinite Loop.

Rumors has certainly had a storied and interesting history — something that we’ll be elaborating on more in new installment’s of our founder’s editorial column in the near future — a big part of which has been our many opportunities to hear about, see pictures, video and streaming conference calls of….and in a few cases, even put hands on Apple prototype hardware.

To get to the specifics of your question, Kyle: there has certainly been a lot of variation in the state of prototypes built at Cupertino (and a few constructed at least partially elsewhere, by Apple’s Southeast Asian manufacturing partners) over our 15 years in this business. Early on — prior to Steve Jobs’ return — when Apple’s industrial design was nothing particularly special, it was typical for new Macs to be prototyped in the same enclosure as their direct predecessor, or an only slightly modified version — for example, the never-shipped PowerMac 9700 (AKA 9900) which had in some cases upwards of 32 604evx “Mach 5” PowerPC processors as a demonstration of the multi-processor scalability of the then-infant Mac OS X (known then as project Rhapsody), was usually seen in an taller version of the PowerMac 9600 case, which was in turn a slight modification of the 8500/9500 enclosure.

But since that time, as Jobs’ influence on Infinite Loop’s corporate culture added an intense emphasis on secrecy and leak-plugging, prototypes have become much more varied. Often times, they have no enclosure at all — or it is deliberate varied from one prototype to another so that if images of the prototype do leak out, the leaker(s) can be readily identified by which people had access to a prototype with a certain type of outer appearance.

Since sleek, unparalleled industrial design has become such an essential part of Apple’s success (and its mystique!), a leak of the details of a new product’s appearance/enclosure is as much a concern for those responsible for information security in Cupertino as the leak of details about the product’s specs, internal components and so on. As a result, it’s become increasingly rare that a prototype’s outward appearance much resembles the shipping product.

A perfect example is the “Nehalem” Mac Pro which was released earlier this year and which we reported on extensively prior to its release. Several prototypes sported a new, black-and-silver enclosure design which was significantly larger than the essentially unchanged aluminum tower design which ultimately shipped. So, it’s not always misdirection or absence of industrial design elements that are at issue; sometimes prototypes are part of the evolutionary process of not just the internal hardware, but also the enclosures themselves. Often we report on prototypes which reflect elements of Apple’s thinking process….but just as often, it can be easy to be misled because even the most well-connected insiders usually only see part of that evolving picture.

We could give many more examples of prototypes we’ve seen — ones that we reported on at the time, and others which were embargoed by the sources or which we elected to remain silent about for a wide range of reasons right up until the day of the products’ release. But the heart of Kyle’s question is this: do the prototypes that Apple develops for its own internal purposes as well as occasional limited outside testing, much resemble what ultimately ships in terms of how they look, their overall polish….or do they more closely resemble half-finished homebrew electronics, with wires sprouting all over the place and hand-soldered PCB boards?

There have certainly been some prototypes we’ve seen — mostly earlier in the almost 20 year span (some of us had access to this sort of insider information well before MOSR was founded) of our experience — which looked more like something that came out of a mad scientist’s lab and were built to test functionality, not final chip layouts or the outer appearance of the machine/device. But much more often than not, particularly since Macs began to shrink into compact models like the Macbooks, Xserve and Mini….even the Mac Pro becoming a tightly packed bundle of hardware….and most particularly since the advent of the iDevice which packs even more silicon into an even smaller hand-held space, testing the way that the developmental hardware behaves in a configuration similar to its final densely-packed state has become vital.

Thusly, while as you can see the answer to your question is on the one hand complex & varied, on the other hand it can also be quite simple: these days, the guts of a prototype often are very similar to what ships even when some specs (for example, no 3.2GHz 16-core Mac Pro or quad-core iMac as we had hoped based on prototypes early this year; Apple chose to ship those desktops months earlier than we expected from the state of prototypes at the time) come out quite different on announcement day.

We hope this answers your question, Kyle — and to all our readers who have questions of their own, don’t hesitate to send them in: drop us an email, connect with us on Twitter, or simply submit a web comment using the DISQUS form below!

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