Apple is shifting black iPhones by the million, but for some reason it can’t even manufacture the white variety, let alone sell it, says Seb Janacek.

When Apple unveiled the iPhone 4 at the company’s Worldwide Developer Conference in June, CEO Steve Jobs announced two models: one black, one white.

The black model has gone on to contribute massive revenues to the company’s coffers – Apple sold over 14 million iPhones, according to its latest quarterly results. While the 3GS still remains in Apple’s product line-up, there’s no doubt the (black) iPhone 4 drove the sales – and why not? It’s an impressive product.

In comparison, the tale of the white iPhone 4 is one of embarrassment, frustration and shame. The white iPhone 4 has been seen in the wild fewer times than snow leopards have been filmed in the upper Himalayas by freezing, crazed BBC cameramen.

Despite the 4 June unveiling, the white phone has failed to make it to market and now the story of its difficult birth has taken another turn.

Recent developments in the white iPhone tale
The latest twist in the saga of the white iPhone came last week with news the device had been added and then swiftly removed from Apple’s website – the ghost of a machine seemingly exorcised from Apple’s shop window.

Black and white Apple iPhone 4s

The black iPhone 4, foreground, is a common sight but the white iPhone remains elusive
(Photo credit: James Martin/CNET)

Back in June, samples were made available for the press to fondle, and early hands-on reviews spoke with enthusiasm about the device’s aesthetic appeal, with some comparing it to the original iPod.

While the current 3GS iPhone comes in white, it’s just a back case. The iPhone 4 features white components on the face of the phone and the effect was said to be impressive. Sadly, it has yet to make it into the hands of paying customers, only the grubby hands of the press.

The white model was conspicuously missing at the device’s launch on 24 June. Jobs himself at the notorious Antennagate press conference announced that units would be available in limited supply by the end of July. Not so.

Manufacturing challenges
A week later and the company issued a press release announcing: “White models of Apple’s new iPhone 4 have continued to be more challenging to manufacture than we originally expected, and as a result they will not be available until later this year.”

Shortly afterwards, Mark Papermaster, the senior vice president of devices hardware engineering whom Apple had lured at enormous expense and effort from the clutches of…

…IBM, left the company just a few months after he had arrived. Probably just a coincidence?

Then last week, the device seemingly became available to pre-order from the US-only Apple Store iPhone app – yet the next day it was again delayed, this time until spring 2011.

Apple spokeswoman Trudy Muller told Reuters: “We’re sorry to disappoint customers waiting for the white iPhone again.” There was no explanation for the latest delay.

Being Apple, there are naturally plenty of rumours about why the white iPhone has failed to make it to market.

Component incompatibility problems
The only official announcement Apple has made about the delay is the statement that the white device has proved “more challenging” to manufacture.

However, rumours swirl around the web about problems with colour incompatibility between parts supplied by different Far East component makers. In other words, Apple may be dealing with the wrong kinds of white.

Alternatively, rumour has it that the problems are down to light leaking through the back of the device, which may or may not affect its ability to take photographs.

Likewise there has been an inevitable amount of speculation about whether the manufacturing problems surrounding the iPhone 4’s much trumpeted and then much maligned external antenna contributed to Papermaster’s swift exit from the company.

It’s not hard to imagine the history of production difficulties with the white iPhone contributing to an extremely difficult time for the company’s short-lived hardware engineering chief.

Meanwhile, the white iPhone 4 remains elusive and out of Apple’s grasp.

White whale analogies
Other commentators, particularly in the US, have made the inevitable white whale analogy – the image of a desperate pursuit of an evasive adversary.

The great white whale of Melville’s Moby Dick has been claimed as a metaphor for many things, including God, the ocean, nature and death itself, so in our age of wireless communications, why not a white smartphone?

Can the company really be serious about selling the phone in the spring? After all, Apple has released a new iPhone in June or July every year since 2008. A spring launch gives it just a couple of months until the iPhone 5 is likely to be released.

As of last week, the device has been largely removed from the Apple website, although there’s still the odd sighting here and there.

We wait eagerly to see whether it has simply dived to the depths for the time being or whether it’s been harpooned.

Either way, it will torment the product perfectionist Jobs just as the great whale tormented Captain Ahab: “To the last, I grapple with thee; From Hell’s heart, I stab at thee; For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee.”