iOS 5, day five: Find My iPhone (and other iThings)

Or, how to send your loved ones the most irritating text message possible

Most the gadgets that are sadly so important to our lives are a dangerous combination of useful, expensive, and portable: we rely on them a lot, but they are easy to lose or steal. One of the most touted features of iCloud is a group of new services -- lumped, somewhat misleadingly, under "Find My iPhone," even though they work with both iOS and OS X devices -- designed to help you track down your beloved gizmos. These have been available with Apple's paid MobileMe service for a while, but they're free now, and many users (including me) are encountering them for the first time.

Find your iEverything

Click on the Find My iPhone icon on iCloud's homescreen and you'll have the opportunity to find any iCloud enabled gadget, for various definitions of "find." You can opt out of this -- when you activate iCloud on any iOS device, you have to say whether you want it to be locatable -- but I long ago embraced our Orwellian future and am happy to have my devices metaphorically LoJacked. The Find My iPhone screen will track down any device associated with your Apple ID that (a) you've registered and (b) is connected to the Internet. You get a slightly more accurate assessment for devices connected via the cell network than you do for devices connected over the Internet, but either way the speed and degree of precision is somewhat scary -- you'll be located within a block or so. So, if you think you left your iPhone at work but can't remember, or if you know someone stole your iPad and you want to track them down, you can get some details.

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Where my phone was, last week (sorry, stalkers)

Reach out from the cloud

But you can do more than just see where the device is. Click on the little "i" icon next to the green dot representing the device you're interested in. You'll get not the information you might expect, but some options with actions to take: You can lock the device, wipe it, or just have it make a noise. I decided to lock up my personal laptop, full of all sorts of important and personally identifying data, to see what that would look like to a potential thief. When I clicked "Remote Lock," I was given a chance to enter a six-digit passcode and a message; after I did, the laptop shut down and restarted, bringing me to the following screen (apologies for the poor quality of the pic):

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I pity the fool who steals my laptop

I already have my account on the laptop password-protected to begin with, so it's not entirely clear how much more security this adds; I guess I'm setting up a different password that maybe the thief wouldn't already know, if they had sneakily guessed my earlier one? At any rate, I enjoy being able to send out spooky and menacing messages. I imagine people will be using this to say "I know where you live, leave the iPad behind statue in the park and walk away and the cops don't need to be involved" a lot.

As a side note, most of the descriptions and screenshots I've been using here have been from the iCloud Web interface, but there's a Find My iPhone iOS app where you can ... find your iPhone from your iPhone, I guess. (Or your laptop or your iPad, I guess. Or your iPod Touch! Or your other iPhone!)

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There's an app for that, obviously

Finding things the old fashioned way

Dots on a map are nice and all, but let's be honest: nine times out of ten when you've lost your iPhone, you've lost it somewhere in your house. Sadly (or maybe luckily) Google Maps doesn't have a floorplan of your dwelling yet, so you'll need another way to track it down. I used to do the old "call your cell phone from your landline" trick, but we gave up our landline years ago and half the time I have the ringer on my phone turned off anyway. So, how do you track it down?

The Play Sound or Send Message option does just those things, and that sound is really quite loud -- I heard it way on the other side of the house and down a flight of stairs, and my hearing isn't really so hot. The sound is a sort of sonar-y ping, and is quite loud, even if your phone is on vibrate and the volume is turned down. You can optionally send a message at the same time, which could make this a way to send the world's most intrusive text message.

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I chose to berate myself for losing the phone

One last note of interest: when you do choose to send an alert or message to your phone, or wipe or lock it remotely, you get an email telling you that you've done so -- presumably so you know if someone else has hijacked your account in order to mess with your it.

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Thanks for the update, Apple!

Useful! It might also be nice to get "Someone who you share an Apple ID with obsessively tracked your movements all night" email, but I can see that opening a can of worms.

This story, "iOS 5, day five: Find My iPhone (and other iThings)" was originally published by ITworld.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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