Apple wants its 3G MacBook prototype back

Apple wants a North Carolina man to return a prototype notebook computer that he purchased on Craigslist earlier this year, CNET has learned.

Three weeks ago, photos of the device emerged in an eBay listing by Carl Frega, a North Carolina resident who had purchased the machine from someone on Craigslist for parts to fuel his repair business. Upon opening it up, he discovered that the machine was unlike any Apple had ever released to the public.

The unusual Apple notebook.
(Credit: eBay seller abhw752579)

Beneath the notebook's metal frame was a slot for a SIM card, and on the lid was an external antenna, suggesting that Apple was testing built-in cellular networking in its notebook computers right around the time the first iPhones were hitting store shelves.

The device, which is still in Frega's hands, was of big interest to CNET readers after cropping up on eBay for a little less than a day before being pulled down at the request of Apple, though not before bidding hit $US70,000 from interested buyers. Apple pulled the plug on the sale (which had actually been listed by a friend of Frega's), citing infringement on copyrights, trademarks or other intellectual property rights.

Frega said he was contacted by Apple this afternoon to have someone from the company pick it up.

Perhaps just as interesting as the machine itself is what happened to it before it ended up on eBay, a story that includes a trip to small claims court, a potential TV appearance and a trip to an Apple Genius Bar, where it was denied service after being identified as a Frankenstein-like machine containing third-party parts.

The machine matches up with a 2007 MacBook Pro, although it differs with an unusual, magnetically attached antenna on the top lid, along with a slot for a SIM card right where users would normally change out the battery. That design and functionality never made it into a device Apple has shipped, but matches up with a 2008 Apple patent application for a notebook computer that would be able to tap into 3G wireless networks, giving users connectivity on the go.

The Mac's innards were a big tip-off that the machine was likely a prototype, due to the use of a red circuit board. Such boards were used in a prototype MacBook Air that ended up on eBay in 2008, and an unreleased Mac Pro posted on the auction site in 2009. By comparison, Apple typically uses green circuit boards in its final products. Other hints are the hand-soldered wires, which could be seen in those other listings, as well as a lack of any EMC number — the unique identifier for different Apple computer models.

Frega says he originally bought the machine off someone from Craigslist for spare parts, something he started doing in high school and, later, college. "I'd make extra money by buying broken CRT monitors and other things at [North Carolina] State University and NC government surplus sales, and then repair and resell them from my dorm room," Frega told CNET. After that, he branched out to start fixing servers, networking equipment, TVs and laser printers. The hobby led to a part-time job at Best Buy, then eventually a full-time gig doing repairs and refurbishing.

As it turns out, this month's eBay listing wasn't the first time that pictures of the mystery device were posted to the web. Shortly after purchasing it for parts on Craigslist, Frega went to the forums of tech site Anandtech to show others the device and chronicle his attempts to get it working again. In the end, the device was glossed over.

"Few people were really interested, and the thread turned into a discussion about tethering rates and wireless carriers," Frega said. "[It's] part of why I figured the machine wasn't anything particularly special (except to a tech geek like me), and not worth the trouble of selling as a collector's piece."

As a result, Frega installed a new hard drive, and a copy of Mac OS X Snow Leopard on the machine, then re-sold it on Craigslist. That's when things got interesting once again.

Days after buying the machine, the new buyer ended up taking it to the Genius Bar at the Crabtree Valley Mall Apple Store in Raleigh, North Carolina, citing "random issues". The Genius Bar staff denied service of the machine, since the inside was deemed to be full of non-Apple parts.

The official Genius Bar repair sheet, a copy of which was sent to CNET, says:

"Opened machine to observe that nearly every internal part was third party; main logic board, optical drive, display, hard drive, top case and others. Machine serial number (W8707003Y53) is also not recognised as a valid number."

As a result, the second buyer ended up taking Frega to small claims court, alleging that he had sold him fake, or otherwise counterfeit, goods. Shortly after that summons, Frega got a letter from the producers of the afternoon syndicated court show Judge Mathis, saying the case might be a good fit for the TV show, which Frega ended up declining.

"I didn't think it was a good idea, despite my friends and housemates all saying I should," Frega said.

In the end, the judge who heard the case ruled in the second buyer's favour, forcing Frega to pay US$740. As part of that decision, he ended up getting the notebook back. Apple declined to comment on whether Frega would be compensated for what he originally paid for the device.

This is not the first time that Apple has sought the return of a prototype device. The company requested the safe return of the iPhone 4 prototype acquired by blog Gizmodo last year before that device was announced, confirming its legitimacy.


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simonsyd posted a comment   

it should go to a museum.


EricJ posted a comment   

Typical Apple bullying, If he decided that it was his purchase and he is keeping it (as I know I sure would), Apple will just take him to court over it. How did this ever leave Apple to begin with, Their fault not his!

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