In John Gruber’s excellent analysis of the Gizmodo iPhone theft, he touches on something obvious in retrospect: that prototype iPhones have to leave Apple campus sometime before they are available to the public, because it’s impossible to thoroughly test a phone without moving it around in the real world. You have to know how it will react to changing signal strengths, to lost calls, perhaps even to changes in network carrier and how the roaming modes do or don’t work.
When the iPad was announced, Apple made it clear that plain iPads with WiFi connectivity would be available first, while the iPad 3G, offering connectivity through GSM mobile networks, would be available some weeks later.
There are many potential reasons for this. Perhaps the 3G hardware was developed on a slightly later schedule than the base model. But it seems more likely that the base model is more or less identical to the 3G’s hardware, with a few conspicuously missing chips (the GPS and the GSM), and perhaps a missing antenna.
The vast majority of functionality for both the 3G and base models could be verified within Apple’s walls. It’s just that question mark next to the 3G connectivity that would have to be verified once and for all out in the real world.
So, how do you do this final sanity testing without drawing attention to your “magical” 10×8 inch tablet, the likes of which nobody has ever seen before? By peppering the world with exactly lookalikes.
Once the iPad shipped, they began to show up in cafés, on subways, in public parks, everywhere! These few weeks have been Apple’s opportunity to send employees out with 3G iPads, completely undetected by curious onlookers. Nobody knows that the 3G iPad on the table at Starbucks is doing anything special. It’s connecting to the internet like all the other iPads in the room, no doubt delighting its user, but also performing valuable last-minute testing for Apple.
If everything goes well in those few weeks, the iPad 3G ships on schedule as promised. But if something really hairy becomes evident, it’s Apple’s chance to prevent the public embarrassment. They stop the factories in China, work out an engineering solution, and adjust the ship date accordingly.