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When the Apple iPhone came to Verizon earlier this year, it was big. Huge, in fact. After years of waiting, AT&T-spurning iPhone hopefuls were finally getting their due. For the nation’s largest network — a staunch Android supporter credited with popularizing the OS among consumers — a major platform was joining its portfolio, one that could undercut the key userbase of its fiercest competitor. And it finally ended months, no years, of speculation.

Little wonder then that, in the lead-up to the January 11 press event, the rumors and predictions were boiling over. And with all that attention, you’ve got to appreciate what it must have taken to keep something this big under wraps. Well, thanks to one of our trusty sources, we don’t have to wonder anymore.

In this TechnoBuffalo exclusive, a source close to the action gave us an inside look at what went on behind the scenes at America’s number-one carrier as Apple finally ended its iPhone exclusivity. This unique perspective is something that people don’t normally have access to, and it sheds light on the way a major tech company handles its veil of secrecy, how it learned from past mistakes, and what it takes to craft a buzzworthy tech unveiling.

 

Behind the Verizon iPhone

According to our source, select Verizon staffers were entrusted with pre-launch CDMA iPhones two weeks prior to the official announcement. In order to take possession, they were required to first sign and fax off NDAs (non disclosure agreements). Now this isn’t all that strange in the tech sector. For Verizon, signing off on a one-pager may not have been common practice, but it wasn’t unheard of either. But dealing with a new partner’s corporate security people, their four-page NDAs and other protocols? That was a strange new experience.

Take activation and security, for instance. When top-secret handsets are active and put out in the wild, an interesting challenge pops up — how do you secure them? After all, given what happened last year, no one wanted history to repeat itself.

In case you didn’t know about the iPhone 4 prototype getting leaked last year (maybe because you were living under a rock or something), the incident presented more than just embarrassment for Apple. It was a genuine security fail. The Find My iPhone feature didn’t work on that unit, so the company didn’t (couldn’t) track the device. The company only knew to remotely disable the phone because the engineer who lost it reported the incident. But what if the guy was stricken ill? Or had an accident? Or got punched in the head for drunkenly hitting on someone’s girl? (Hey, he was in a bar, fer crying out loud. Happens everyday.) In other words, what if the staffer was unable to report his missing device?

This wasn’t an issue this time around. Our source describes a unique protocol requiring staffers to text a secret PIN code to a dedicated phone number every 12 hours. This served as ongoing confirmation that the handset was still in the proper hands. So no PIN code, no functionality.

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(Makes me wonder if a Lost fan designed this protocol. Reminiscent of Desmond and Locke plugging the numbers into the computer, no?)

While only select staffers got the privilege of handling the Apple smartphone in advance, others were entrusted to field test Verizon connectivity at Apple Stores, says the insider, who confirms that this was going on as early as six months prior to the announcement. (That would put it squarely in the July timeframe — in other words, just after the GSM iPhone 4 launched on AT&T.)

Though key employees and executives were in the loop, everyone else at the carrier knew little more than the rest of the public. And it would seem the higher ups wanted to keep it that way. No one talked about the Apple smartphone externally, and even internally, it was still a hush-hush operation. In fact, says the source, the word “iPhone” was never uttered; only its codename was referenced: It was called the “ACME” device.

Weighty NDAs, clandestine tests, codenames and secrecy…. yep, definitely Applesque.

Apple Acme Devices

 

How “The Worst-Kept Secret” in Mobile Stayed Buzzworthy

To say that the Verizon iPhone was anticipated would be an understatement. In some circles, it was considered the worst-kept secret in mobile. Pretty much everyone knew that the deal was coming, but no one knew when. And that turned out to be key.

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There was plenty of reason to expect the deal. The carrier already made peace with Apple to sell the iPad, and leaks galore had surged in seemingly from everywhere, from sources at home and abroad in China, where the iPhone is manufactured. Even when the vague  press invitations went out, confident assertions immediately cropped up, with the Verizon iPhone dubbed “a sure thing” by the likes of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Despite all this, the deal was still treated like a closely guarded secret. (If this was the protocol for the CDMA iPhone, can you imagine the lock down around the LTE prototype? I’m sure it would rival even the greatest spy novels.)

One thing’s for sure: The executives at Verizon have got to be amazing poker players. Throughout the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January, they didn’t let on for a moment that they still had an incredible hand yet to play. The pundits and journos even tried to sniff out leads at the show, paying particular attention to Verizon events for signs of Apple influence. There was absolutely nothing. Then, as the show wound down and the reporters let their guards down, it happened. A bevy of red-hued press invitations got mass-blasted out to the tech reporting world.

The rumpled, exhausted cadre of reporters and bloggers rubbed their bleary eyes. Now? Verizon’s sending invitations now? Yes. And the date was January 11 — just two days after CES.

If you ask me, it was brilliant. A Verizon-Apple deal was so long in coming that it actually could have run a risk of being anti-climactic if they had waited any longer. (For evidence of that, just look at what happened to the white iPhone 4.) And doing it earlier, like just before or during the show, risked letting it drown in a sea of other tech news. This way, it got its own spotlight.

But mostly, it was because a long-awaited, much-anticipated and wholly expected announcement still found a way to deliver an unexpected element of excitement.

Think of it like setting up a surprise party: You say nothing to the birthday boy/girl, to make it seem like you forgot or overlooked the occasion. And then when disappointment sets in, WHAMMO! Out jumps the “big red” crowd screaming, “Surprise!” — with everyone holding their sleek, glass-tastic gifts.