Apple’s biggest spoilers: The devs who cracked the code on iPhone X

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Apple keynote spoiler, Steven Troughton-Smith.
One of the devs who helped crack Apple's code. Literally.
Steve Troughton Smith/Flickr

When Apple execs stepped onstage for September’s big iPhone X unveiling, they had precious few surprises up their sleeves. This year’s iPhone keynote became one of the most spoiled in history, thanks to major software leaks — and a pair of industrious young developers who dug into Apple’s code to pierce the veil of Apple’s vaunted secrecy apparatus.

Steven Troughton-Smith and Guilherme Rambo, who live thousands of miles apart in Ireland and Brazil, dutifully combed through the leaked code. Working separately but in parallel, they pieced together clues that allowed them to reverse-engineer Apple’s plans. Then they released their findings on Twitter, painting an incredibly accurate picture of the iPhone X in a drip-drip-drip of juicy, spoiler-filled tweets.

The end result? An Apple event upstaged by leaks, and by the hard work of two curious coders. Cult of Mac talked with Troughton-Smith and Rambo to find out how they uncovered some of Apple’s most closely kept secrets.

Apple leaks reveal iPhone X early

The devastating twin leaks came from inside Apple. First, a botched firmware release for the upcoming HomePod smart speaker pointed to a mysterious device called “D22,” Apple’s internal code number for the iPhone X, among other details. Then a copy of the iOS 11 golden master, apparently leaked by a rogue Apple employee to the two developers (and some tech publications), blew the lid off iPhone X.

Taken together, the leaks provided a mother lode of information about the hotly anticipated iPhone for anyone with the skills and perseverance to examine the software.

Troughton-Smith, a 28-year-old dev who lives in Dublin, Ireland, has been panning for gold in Apple software for years.

“Code is hard evidence, supply chain rumors are not,” he said. “I don’t believe a rumor until I can see stuff in the code that would support it.”

HomePod and iOS 11 leaks yield Apple keynote spoilers

In the run-up to the iPhone X and iPhone 8 media event, the leaks from within Apple proved especially potent.

The code gave Troughton-Smith an incredibly clear picture of Apple’s plans. He was the first to find the official names of all three new iPhones. He also uncovered the iPhone X’s new gestural UI in place of a Home button, its exact screen resolution, Animojis, the iPhone X’s split status bar, the exact CPU configuration on the A11, camera specs and other revelations.

“In this rumor cycle,” he said, “I bet against a lot of other sources based on the evidence I found, and was fortunately proven right.”

Rambo
“It’s the only public picture I have,” says Guilherme Rambo.
Photo: Guilhelme Rambo

On the other side of the planet, 25-year-old Guilherme Rambo explored the same leaked Apple code from his place on the Brazilian island of Florianopolis.

Buried in the code, he discovered an image of something called the “D22.”

It provided the first confirmation from Apple of what the upcoming iPhone X would look like.

“Lots of things were known already based on the HomePod firmware,” said Rambo, who works as an iOS developer for Peixe Urbano, Brazil’s biggest e-commerce website. “But since it was a firmware for the HomePod, the amount of information it contained about iPhones was limited and there was no way to actually run any of the code.”

HomePod firmware: A road map to Apple leaks

The HomePod firmware offered many clues that Troughton-Smith, Rambo and others exploited. It “basically provided a map of all the places of interest,” Troughton-Smith said.

Clues in the code made it easier for the developers to quickly find details related to Apple’s upcoming devices.

With devs primed for the hunt, the second leak blew the lid completely off Apple’s iPhone X event.

“Three days before the Apple event, someone sent me and others links to the golden master version of iOS 11, including the firmware for D22,” Rambo said. “That firmware was supposed to be released after the Apple event, so it didn’t hide anything — except for most marketing images. Also, given that all iPhones share the same firmware, with minor changes in assets and frameworks, it meant I could run some code that was meant to be run only on iPhone X on my iPhone 7 Plus. That’s how I demonstrated the Face ID enrollment process and how the status bar was going to behave on iPhone X.”

Steven Troughton-Smith: A history of digging into Apple

Troughton-Smith has been on the hunt for iPhone secrets for years. With every new iOS release, he says his first step is to “diff” it against the previous release. That shows him exactly what changed and where. This gives him a starting point to begin mining for Apple secrets.

He also keeps abreast of Apple supply chain news and rumors, using them as a sort of tip sheet. When he hears about something like an edge-to-edge display, face scanning or wireless charging, he digs into Apple’s code. Using tools like debugging and decompiling software Hopper Disassembler, he starts looking for insights into Apple’s possible future plans.

As befits an industry in which success is typically found young, Troughton-Smith’s first “scoop” came when he was still a teenager. Digging into iPhone OS 2, he found a way to enable Emoji on early iPhones — a feature previously limited to Japan. The discovery spawned a mini industry of ‘Emoji enabler’ apps before Apple brought Emoji to all devices with iOS 5.

“It seems almost inconceivable now that Emoji were a country-specific feature, as they’re such a big part of modern communication, and become headline marketing features for new iOS releases,” he said.

Apple fans on a mission

Both Troughton-Smith and Rambo are longtime Apple fans.

Troughton-Smith was a high school senior when the original iPhone came out, but his Apple fandom goes back even further.

“I’ll never forget the moment when my father brought back our first Mac, the Macintosh IIsi, when I was 4 years old,” he said. “It had a huge impact on me, and I’ve been a Mac user ever since.”

Steve T-S
Too many leaks for one laptop.
Photo: Steven Troughton-Smith

Today, Troughton-Smith describes himself as a combination tech pundit and developer. He runs a Patreon page, where he shares his expertise with followers. His most popular app is Grace, a communication tool for people without verbal skills. The autism app is the kind of project that no doubt would thrill Apple CEO Tim Cook, who talks up the importance of his company’s Accessibility efforts.

However, Cook is probably less keen on Troughton-Smith’s propensity for digging up details concerning future Cupertino releases. Some Apple fans don’t appreciate the spoilers, either.

This year’s leaks took spoiler culture to new levels for Apple. While pop culture fans have long bemoaned leaks that can spoil shows like Lost and Game of Thrones, this year’s Apple leaks spawned howling complaints from iPhone fans.

“This ruins the surprise and everything,” writer popular Apple blogger Federico Viticci on Twitter. “Hopefully should incentivize tighter scrutiny in the future.”

Steve
Steve on Apple’s own turf.
Photo: Steven Troughton-Smith

Sources behind Apple leaks

Troughton-Smith and Rambo aren’t the ultimate source of this year’s unprecedented leaks from inside Apple. But their efforts turned Apple’s missteps into a massive wave of spoilers that proved unavoidable for anybody reading tech news.

The HomePod firmware, apparently prepped for Apple employees testing the smart speaker, somehow found its way onto a publicly accessible Apple server. That leak, which served up details about the HomePod and the iPhone X, seems like a simple but unfortunate blunder by Apple.

The iOS 11 GM software, on the other hand, was supposedly leaked intentionally by a “rogue Apple employee,” a person Daring Fireball called the “least popular person in Cupertino.”

The iOS 11 golden master leak

The software, published to “long, unguessable URLs” on Apple servers, was then deliberately sent by an unknown person or persons to Troughton-Smith and Rambo, as well as to 9to5Mac and MacRumors. Neither Troughton-Smith nor Rambo would reveal the source of the leak; nor would MacRumors.

“The leak came out of the blue and we can’t reveal any details,” said Eric Slivka, editor in chief of MacRumors. “It’s pretty unprecedented, but obviously a number of people had knowledge of these links. It’s a bit surprising there was no security other than the obscurity of the link, but I’m sure that’ll change for the future.”

Apple did not respond to Cult of Mac’s requests for comment on the leaks.

Guilherme Rambo: A fan of Apple’s privacy stance

Rambo became interested in Apple because it wasn’t Microsoft Windows.

“More recently, I became a fan of the way they’re handling user privacy,” he said. He praised Apple and Tim Cook’s recent stance against the FBI, which wanted Apple to develop a backdoor into iOS for the San Bernardino terrorist investigation.

“Even if I didn’t like Apple’s products for the other reasons mentioned, I would probably use them just for the privacy concerns,” he said.

Now, Rambo is carving out a niche for himself as an exposer of Apple secrets.

To leak or not to leak? Apple keynote spoilers

Given Apple’s penchant for secrecy, and its not-so-secret plan for busting leakers, it seems probable that Cupertino has Troughton-Smith and Rambo in its sights.

However, when asked if Apple made contact with them, Cult of Mac got the kind of evasive answers that investors receive when they ask Tim Cook about future iPhone updates on an earning call.

“Apple has never made official contact in any capacity,” Troughton-Smith said. The emphasis is, one assumes, on the “official.” Rambo says he heard from Apple after shar sharing details on Twitter. However, he would not provide any specifics.

Do Troughton-Smith and Rambo think the leaks, and their digging, spoiled the Apple keynote for fans? After all, surely big product reveals seem less fun if you know in advance what’s coming.

“Personally, I was even more excited for the event after knowing a lot about the products,” Rambo said. “I was curious to see what the story would be like. I heard the same from other Apple fans, but I understand that not all of them like this.”

On Twitter, Apple watchers like Cody Kloepfer and Bradley Braithwaite decried the leaks.

“I miss the days of Apple’s total secrecy,” tweeted Kloepfer (@Semantics). “When leaks weren’t insanely rampant. When these events were so dang exciting.”

Braithwaite called the iPhone X leaks “annoying.”

“I accidentally saw the headlines about iPhone X,” Braithwaite tweeted. “It takes away the moment from the creators.”

Apple keynotes remain exciting, spoilers or not

Rambo admitted that the leaks might lessen the “wow” factor for those primed for Apple’s iPhone X keynote. But he doesn’t think the leaks — especially coming so close to the event — hurt Apple’s sales.

For Troughton-Smith, it all comes down to an individual’s perspective. “Personally, I feel it just shifts the excitement upfront,” he said. “The message is far more important than the reveal, and that’s why I watch Apple events — to see how Apple presents its vision.”

Still, he knows his hard work bummed out some spoiler-averse Apple fans.

“There are absolutely plenty of people who only care about the reveal and hate seeing rumors beforehand, and it was hard for them to avoid ‘spoilers’ when the magnitude of the details revealed by this particular leak was so great,” he said.

“Even still, I was on the edge of my seat waiting for the official reveal of the marketing name for iPhone X to see if the evidence was accurate — it’s sometimes the little things that are the most exciting parts of the keynote.”

  • bIg hIlL

    Nothing new here, Jobs himself leveraged the cheap publicity opportunity of fake “data leaks” to the media way back in the 80s. Apple are just continuing the game and these two fish took the bait, that’s all.

    • The Cappy

      You’re almost certainly wrong. Leaks that cause the kinds of spoilers that make your big show a boring letdown and spoil all your surprises are NOT the kinds of carefully controlled leaks that a master showman like Jobs or a masterful marketing department like Apple’s would have wanted. The leak was real and malicious. But I’ll agree with you if your point is that we shouldn’t be fluffing the egos of these two guys who seem to have nothing better to do with their own skills than spoiling other people’s hard work.

      • bIg hIlL

        If you think so, prove it. Nothing was spoiled, the majority of people who watched the keynote did not know about the leaks. Only nerds like us read these tech news sites, so they choose to leak a bit of stuff our way to see how our hungry piranhas digest it, it generates more interest, we nerds are more hyped to watch the show to see if the leaked data was true or not, its another spin angle, spices up the audience. Think about it Cappy. You know it makes sense.

      • The Cappy

        What would constitute proof to you? There are people who gobble up tech rumors. But a lot of those who don’t still read reviews. By and large they read reviews written by people who — wait for it — gobble up tech rumors. And so they’re currently reading articles about how the keynote was disappointing. If you don’t think so then you might be living in a bubble. I’ve had several people come to me who wanted to talk about the new iPhones and half of them tell me how disappointing the reveal was. Why? Because “there weren’t any surprises”. Your argument sounds a lot like the people who pirate music and say they’re doing the music companies a favor because they’re exposing other people to new music. To a certain extent there might be truth in the notion, but when you go far enough, you nullify any benefit, and that’s how I view the last keynote. I think that rumors build hype up to a point, sure. But I’m surprised anybody is making the argument that this last round (where almost everything about the new devices was actually spilled) was a good thing.

      • bIg hIlL

        Fair enough Cappy. Six of one and half a dozen of the other. Above all, I find it rather surprising that Apple leaked not only secret code in the Homepod software but then there was another revealing software leak after that. They go to the ends of the Earth in their secrecy quest, then two separate insiders manage these massive blows? A few years ago a prototype iPhone was left in a bar and subsequently sold on to a tech website, that caused a storm and what was leaked? Not even half of what came out this round, and with the passage of time the security does not increase? It all seems rather fishy to me so whilst you have valid arguments I too will maintain my position if you don’t mind.

  • Henry Grob

    What would constitute proof to you? There are people who gobble up tech rumors. But a lot of those who don’t still read reviews. By and large they read reviews written by people who — wait for it — gobble up tech rumors. And so they’re currently reading articles about how the keynote was disappointing. If you don’t think so then you might be living in a bubble. I’ve had several people come to me who wanted to talk about the new iPhones and half of them tell me how disappointing the reveal was. Why? Because “there weren’t any surprises”. Your argument sounds a lot like the people who pirate music and say they’re doing the music companies a favor because they’re exposing other people to new music. To a certain extent there might be truth in the notion, but when you go far enough, you nullify any benefit, and that’s how I view the last keynote. I think that rumors build hype up to a point, sure. But I’m surprised anybody is making the argument that this last round (where almost everything about the new devices was actually spilled) was a good thing.

  • maximus

    Fair enough Cappy. Six of one and half a dozen of the other. Above all, I find it rather surprising that Apple leaked not only secret code in the Homepod software but then there was another revealing software leak after that. They go to the ends of the Earth in their secrecy quest, then two separate insiders manage these massive blows? A few years ago a prototype iPhone was left in a bar and subsequently sold on to a tech website, that caused a storm and what was leaked? Not even half of what came out this round, and with the passage of time the security does not increase? It all seems rather fishy to me so whilst you have valid arguments I too will maintain my position if you don’t mind.

  • niceee

    Nothing new here, Jobs himself leveraged the cheap publicity opportunity of fake “data leaks” to the media way back in the 80s. Apple are just continuing the game and these two fish took the bait, that’s all.

  • anthony

    You’re almost certainly wrong. Leaks that cause the kinds of spoilers that make your big show a boring letdown and spoil all your surprises are NOT the kinds of carefully controlled leaks that a master showman like Jobs or a masterful marketing department like Apple’s would have wanted. The leak was real and malicious. But I’ll agree with you if your point is that we shouldn’t be fluffing the egos of these two guys who seem to have nothing better to do with their own skills than spoiling other people’s hard work.