What you get when you buy a £25 iPhone down the pub

19 Feb 2010

"I've got an iPhone I want you to check out,” is not a request I hear very often.

I'm a happy user of both the original iPhone and the 3G successor - though, I confess, not an obsessive collector of App Store trinkets or hot tracks from the iTunes Store. Perhaps that's why it took me a while to figure out exactly what I was looking at, when I paid a visit to my friend and glanced at the knock-off iPhone below.

Holding this up beside my iPhone 3G, it is seriously difficult to tell the two devices apart. The back panel of the mysterious phone very clearly labels it as a 32Gb iPhone, complete with Apple logo. My contact claimed to have bought this "down the pub for £25" in an iPhone 3GS Apple box, and I would say that the exterior case is a millimetre perfect copy, with three basic distinguishing areas: the headphone socket, the power button, and the mute slider. It was the mute slider that convinced me of the phone’s "knock-off" status.

On all the iPhones I've ever seen, this rotates within the case to mute the ringer. On the mysterious knock-off, the object in that position doesn't rotate, it's a push-button, and it works the camera. What really brings you up short is the software. When has an iPhone had an "iPod" button that looks like that? What's a "Java" and "WLAN" App button doing on the screen? And how about that Internet Explorer icon? It's like you’re handling an artefact from an alternate history, dropped in via a spacetime wormhole. It has dual SIM handling, too, and came with a bizarre auxiliary battery festooned with warnings about not pressing a button mounted on the front of the top-up device (so why's it there at all?).

I suspect this is actually a SciPhone. If you search on YouTube for "fake iphone china" you'll find a wide variety of devices which share 90% of the surface look-and-feel of an iPhone. Most of them have extra speaker grilles or etched icons at the base of the screen to avoid treading on Apple's toes, but the variations are minimal. However, on the SciPhone the back panel can be also be removed giving you access to the SIMs and the battery.

The final nail in the coffin was an app we found five screens in, which even allowing for "cultural differences" Apple would never allow through the approvals process. The app in questions showed a lissom Asian lady lying on a bed who wriggles and moans suggestively when you rub your finger over her.

No matter how close the imitation - and I'd say that the knock-off iPhone is good enough to fool those who haven't used the real deal - this little outburst of puerile titillation is a dead giveaway for fake status. Not to mention the fact that all the menus, settings, ringtones and software don't work the way the Apple support sites say they should!

What leaves me speechless is that the SciPhone must represent more work and more value - and more capability - than its £25 asking price, just in terms of cost of development and production. Just about the only way to be stupider than incurring Apple's wrath with a forgery, is to grossly undervalue the technology you use as part of that forgery. It's a bit like making a forged pound coin by melting down gold sovereigns: but I rather suspect we won't get to the bottom of where this bizarre hybrid comes from, how it reached the UK, or who's sticking fake backplates on it.

Just be ready for your less-than-streetwise mates to turn up with them in the pub, from time to time.

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