A Safe-Fail in Apple's 'Find My iPhone' Feature

By Lou Carlozo, Green Dad columnist for dealnews

From the streets of Brooklyn to the Silicon Valley itself, iPhones have become prime theft targets, especially during this shopping season. But the following cautionary tale has enough twists for a Dickens Christmas Carol — especially an obscure dead end in Apple's highly-touted "Find my iPhone" tracking feature that may cause the safety feature to fail.

The victim is yours truly, and the tale begins Tuesday evening, Dec.14 in a Starbucks just off Chicago's Magnificent Mile. I settled in with my laptop and iPhone 4 to enjoy an espresso when a bedraggled young man in a ski cap and windbreaker walked up to me and tried hawking a newspaper for meal money. His agitated spiel caused an alert barista named Liam to chase him out. That he left in a hurry didn't seem suspicious, until another customer asked if my phone had been swiped — because hers was gone. (Not only was my phone stolen, but also my sleek, beloved Mophie Juice Pack Air, a combined battery and hard case for the iPhone 4, valued at $79.95.)

Turns out the guy pulled a devious trick now in vogue with the city's iPhone swipers, as confirmed by a Chicago police officer: They lay a newspaper atop the phone, slip a hand beneath the paper and pilfer the device. They don't even have to run, because they're being chased out for soliciting.

Now here's where this crime caper could've had a happy ending. I immediately logged on to my MobileMe account to track the phone. I had high hopes, since I discovered the theft within five minutes. But every time I tried to activate the feature — which can locate an iPhone within a few yards — I saw this error message: "Find my iPhone is unavailable due to a connection error."

"Great! What a time for the Starbucks wireless to bottom out," I thought. (Insert strong expletives of your choice for full effect.) By the time police arrived, the trail had gone cold. I still couldn't activate my iPhone tracking, a feature of Apple's MobileMe cloud computing suite, after 15 minutes.

But bad WiFi wasn't to blame. Three hours later, I got answers at the Chicago Apple Store on Michigan Avenue. Working with a store specialist and live chat assistant, we found the apparent source of the haywire tracking: Apple's "Find my iPhone" feature doesn't work with the Google Chrome web browser.

While that may sound like cybertrivia, consider this: Google Chrome has become the browser of choice for Mac users everywhere. I haven't used Apple's Safari for months because Google Chrome is much more efficient. But for all it can do, Google Chrome apparently couldn't play nice with "Find my iPhone."

Which means that if, like me, you're trying to track a stolen iPhone using Chrome, you're Dead iMeat — though, as I learned, this has everything to do with your operating system.

"Why didn't you switch browsers?" a well-meaning friend asked afterwards. That's a great question, but great hindsight as well. It's damn hard to troubleshoot browser issues — and an obscure one at that — when you're in panic over losing a $500 lifeline. (Like many iPhone users, I consider the smartphone more a second computer than a calling device.)

I reached out to half a dozen PR contacts at Apple to get the company's perspective before hearing back from spokeswoman Monica Sarkar. After a week of emailing and calling back and forth, she shed more light: We learned that Google Chrome does work with Find My iPhone. But you have to be running Mac's Snow Leopard operating system to do it. I run Leopard, in part because certain programs on my computer were known to run more stable with it when Snow Leopard came out in August 2009.


Now before you berate me for being a software slacker, consider that every other program on my computer runs great on Leopard. And of course, I'm responsible to some extent for the loss, though I got lots of sympathy. Liam the Barista asked me to stop back later and check in. Two Chicago police officers gave me a lift to the Apple Store. ("It's too friggin' cold to walk," said the driver, who shook my hand after dropping me off. "I'm so sorry, pal. Merry Christmas.")

Sarkar and the folks at Apple are still trying to get to the bottom of what happened, and figure out what possible remedies they can offer me and other consumers in this boat: Stay tuned for details. In the meantime, I suppose the moral of this story is this: If you want to track a stolen iPhone this winter, make sure you use a Snow Leopard and not just any old Leopard.

Lou Carlozo is dealnews' new Green Dad columnist. He was most recently the managing editor of WalletPop.com, and before that a veteran columnist at the Chicago Tribune. Follow him on Twitter — @LouCarlozo63. You can also sign up for an email alert for all dealnews features.

Photo Credit: Lou Carlozo
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