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The next-generation iPhone prototype that turned up in the press this week is putting the spotlight on one particularly unlucky Apple engineer.

Gizmodo, which acquired the phone through someone who said they found it at a bar, wrote in a post Monday that the lost phone belonged to Gray Powell, a 27-year-old Apple software engineer. The story is pretty comic, unless you’re the hapless Powell or a member of the Apple legal team. Apple is legendary for its tight security, and past product leaks have reportedly led to witch hunts and firings.

Last year, an employee at one of Apple’s contract manufacturers, Foxconn, in China committed suicide after his employer’s security staff put pressure on him for losing Apple iPhone prototypes.

Powell reportedly left the phone, apparently is a prototype of an iPhone that Apple won’t launch for months, at the Gourmet Haus Staudt bar in Redwood City, Calif. Powell was hoisting German beer and said so in his last Facebook update from the bar on the evening of March 18. That was how the person who found the phone identified its owner — by checking the Facebook app on the iPhone. But the finder apparently had trouble getting the phone back to Powell and so it instead wound up in the hands of the editors at Gizmodo, who have caused a bit of a stir by paying for the phone.

Gizmodo wrote about the device and then tracked down Powell, who was evidently still working at Apple. One might surmise that the young engineer must be hugely valuable to Apple to have kept his job despite his huge mistake that could cost Apple in a lot of ways — not the least of which is its usual head start on competitors when it comes to innovation.

The Gawker Media-owned gadget blog also got a letter from Apple’s general counsel, Bruce Sewell, asking for the return of Apple’s property. Gizmodo printed that letter, which the blog considered to be proof positive that the lost prototype was indeed an authentic Apple device.

According to Gizmodo, the device was definitely not stolen. Powell apparently left it on a bar stool and a couple of (drunk) folks nearby found it. The phone was remotely incapacitated the next day through the MobileMe communications service that Apple uses to track and erase lost iPhones. It remains to be seen what will happen to Powell, but Gizmodo is hoping that no harm comes to him because of his mistake.

Can you imagine the conversation that Powell might have with Apple chief executive Steve Jobs?

[photo credits: Gizmodo]

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