With an Apple (AAPL) iPhone special event expected in a week, photos and videos of new iPhone parts are popping up all over the Web. A YouTube search Tuesday morning for the term iPhone 5C returned more than 84,000 hits.
Courtesy Sonny DicksonBut ask around about the business of buying and selling unfinished Apple parts — upon which the company keeps a famously tight lid — and the name that comes up more than any other this summer is Sonny Dickson.
Dickson turns out to be an Australian teenager living in the environs of Melbourne. We reached him by Skype.
He’s a cagy guy.
He’s cagy about his age. “Old enough to drink,” he says. (The legal drinking age in Melbourne is 18.)
He’s cagy about his sources. “They work for Apple in China,” is all he’ll say. Most he cultivated by chatting — via Google Translate — on Weibo.com. Others came from tips sent over the transom toSonny@SonnyDickson.com.
And he doesn’t like to talk about money at all for fear of pissing off his peers in the ultra secret and slightly paranoid Apple parts trade.
“Money is never good,” he says, “It got me a lot of hate.”
But he can’t resist adding: “I could go over to Louis Vuitton today and buy one of their bags with the money I made this month.”
Dickson has three sources of income.
— Posting ad-supported YouTube videos on his new sonnydickson channel, some of which have gone viral.
— Selling ads on his sonnydickson.com website. Last month he drew 1,364,675 page views.
— Fixing iPhones and iPods, a repair business that generates about half his income.
Pressed for a typical price of one of the parts he’s managed to snag, Dickson quotes $250 for the plastic back of an iPhone 5C. According to the owner of a U.S.-based site who has posted iPhone 5C videos, leaked parts stateside go for anywhere from $300 to $500.
Like many young men his age, Dickson got interested in Apple with the release of the original iPhone in 2007. Starting out as an iOS developer, he made a small name for himself extracting information hidden in the code of Apple’s beta software. His first notable score in the parts trade came last year when he got his hands on what turned out to be the logic board of the unreleased iPhone 5.
Courtesy Sonny DicksonBut he hit it big this summer with the first leaked photos of what he says are parts for four unannounced Apple products: the iPhone 5C, the iPhone 5S, the iPad Mini 2 and the iPad 5.
He flew under Apple’s radar until early this year, when Google took down a YouTube site on which he had posted some Apple training videos. Now he says he’s under constant surveillance. According to Dickson, computers based in Cupertino visited his website more than 900 times last month. U.S. Homeland Security stopped by 67 times.
Lately he’s worked out a system to keep the trade at arms length, arranging for buyers to get parts directly from his Chinese sources. But that may not protect him should Apple chose to prosecute.
“Some people think I may be breaking the law, but they don’t really know what I do,” he says. “I’m not breaking any laws that other people don’t do.”