Waiting for the great white iPhone

October 27, 2010, 11:38 AM UTC

Like Moby Dick, the legendary albino may have more power as allegory than product

As MacWorld’s Lex Friedman observed Tuesday in an article entitled White iPhone 4 available now, if you live in the future, writing new stories about Apple’s (AAPL) mythical white smartphone gets harder with each delay.

Let’s recap. The white iPhone 4 was …

  • Announced on June 7
  • Missing at the June 24 launch
  • Promised (by Steve Jobs himself) before the end of July
  • Pushed back to “later this year” in a press release issued the next week
  • Speculated to be the reason Mark Papermaster was fired in August
  • Promised by Christmas in a Steve Jobs e-mail faked by a teenager in September
  • Spotted in the wild in midtown Manhattan two weeks ago
  • Available for pre-order in the version of Apple’s App Store iPhone application that appeared late Monday
  • Pushed back to “next Spring,” per Apple spokesperson Trudy Miller the next day

“We’re sorry,” Muller told Reuters, “to disappoint customers waiting for the white iPhone again.”

What’s going on? We have a theory.

We know that the product exists. Techcrunch MG Siegler sighted one last June and had the presence of mind snap a photo.

We know that Apple can manufacture white iPhones. They’ve been doing if for three and a half years.

We also know that Apple is selling all the iPhones it can make. The company reported sales of 14.1 million in fiscal Q4, up 91% from 2009.

It may be true, as has been rumored, that Apple is having trouble getting the white pigment just right, or that light on the white iPhone 4 is leaking through its glass back, or, as Cult of Mac reported Wednesday, that light leakage is interfering with its ability to take accurate photographs.

But it’s also true that the longer Apple waits to release it, the more people like Lex Friedman — and me — will write about it, speculate about the cause of its delay and help build it into a metaphor for Apple’s perfectionism, for Steve Jobs’ insistence that every jewel-like product be flawless before it ships.

Besides, how many Apple loyalists holding out for a white iPhone are going to settle for a Droid?

Herman Melville, a man who wrote at length about obsession and elusive white objects of desire, would have sympathized with Friedman’s complaint. Half-way through Moby Dick, he confessed to a friend that the book was proving harder than he thought:

“Blubber is blubber you know; tho’ you might get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree.”

UPDATE: According to a Boy Genius report issued Wednesday, there may never be a white iPhone 4. According to his source, Apple will announce in March that it is skipping the current generation and going straight to a white iPhone 5.

UPDATE 2: For a laugh, check out the scene John Gruber paints of the original iPhone confronting a drunk, coke-addled white iPhone in Las Vegas bar. In Daring Fireball, here.

See also:

[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]