David Molnar (ephermata) wrote,

The $99 iphone as an inexpensive tracking device

I recently helped my girlfriend move her stuff from Chicago to Oakland. The movers were scheduled to arrive at 8AM on the 5th of July, and we were stressing the day before about all the things that could go wrong with a move. We realized that if we knew where her stuff was, it'd make us feel better. This is a post about using the $99 iPhone to help us out...and about a somewhat surprising potential use of Find My iPhone.

We started by looking at a couple of dedicated GPS tracking devices, with the thought that we could put one in a box and check its location remotely. Unfortunately, none of these were easily available on the day after the 4th of July. Most of the ones we saw that could be checked remotely cost in the $250-$400 range, too, plus monthly recurring charges in the $45-$50 range. Best Buy, on the other hand, was open at 10am on the 5th. Best Buy sells iPhones.

"Why not use Find My iPhone to see where our stuff is?"

That is, we could buy an iPhone, pack the iPhone with the boxes, and then use Find My iPhone to see where the boxes went. I've held out against the iPhone craze until now, so that meant I had no AT&T contract. I was therefore eligible for the $99 iPhone. What's more, AT&T has a clause in their contract where you can opt out within 30 days without paying the early termination fee. So, an iPhone would be cheaper than a dedicated GPS device (most of which don't play music), and I could return it when we were done.

While the movers packed and loaded boxes the next morning, I went to the nearest Best Buy. In about an hour, I had a $99 iPhone 3G, an extra battery pack ($79), and a year's subscription to MobileMe ($99). Another hour or so, and I'd updated the iPhone to the 3.0 firmware, charged the extra battery, and checked that Find My iPhone successfully located the iPhone. I dropped the phone and extra battery into one of the boxes.

Finally, the last piece of furniture made its way onto the truck and the movers motored off. We waved goodbye and raced off to the airport to catch a flight to see her family.

Find My Moving iPhone

Right before heading to our gate, I opened up MobileMe, logged in, and clicked on "Find My iPhone." It worked! We saw the Google Maps come up, with a red circle on the freeway leading south out of Chicago. The movers were on their way to Oakland! The next day, my girlfriend pointed out that I could take screen shots of the Find My iPhone display. Here's a few from the next day, showing the boxes making progress through New Mexico:

Unfortunately, the next morning we saw an error screen when trying to find the iPhone:

A check of the MobileMe status page revealed that Find My iPhone was down for some users. That would include me, unfortunately.

MobileMe got worse before it got better.

By afternoon, however, MobileMe and Find My iPhone had recovered. We could see that the boxes had crossed into California.

As you can see from the screen shots, the movers were making quick time. In fact, it was too quick: we'd originally planned on having the boxes arrive in Oakland on the 14th of July. Despite the fact that the moving broker had said this would be "OK," the movers themselves had other ideas. By the morning of 8 July they were already near Fresno and wanted to deliver the boxes to us in Oakland as soon as possible that day!

After a lot of negotiation, we agreed to take delivery of the boxes at 11pm on Wednesday 8 July. We flew back to Oakland, arrived at 10PM, and then raced to my girlfriend's place. Naturally, Murphy's Law kicked in and Find My iPhone chose this time to go down:

We called the movers, confirmed they were close, and set about making things ready for their arrival. To cut a long story short, the movers arrived around 11:30PM and unpacked without incident. I opened the box with my new iPhone and found it working fine, just like new. It'd gone through the extra battery, but a quarter of the internal battery was left. Probably could have gone another day or so before running out of juice.

Tracking Your Friends' iPhones

I noticed something else while doing all this. When Apple first announced the Find My iPhone feature, my girlfriend and half the people I follow on Twitter asked "does this mean if I know your MobileMe password, I can track your iPhone?" Yes, you can do that if you know someone's password and if that person has enabled "Find my iPhone" on their phone.

What's more, you can do something that I haven't seen discussed: if you have a friend's un-screen-locked iPhone for a few minutes, you can set up that iPhone to report its location to you. It's simple: go to their Settings app, then add your MobileMe account to their list of accounts, set their data update to "Push," and finally enable Find My iPhone. Now return the iPhone to your friend. When you next go to Find My iPhone in MobileMe, you will see the location of their iPhone.

The key here is that when you click "Update Location" for an iPhone, the phone itself shows no indication that it is reporting its location to MobileMe. No sound plays, no message pops up, nothing like that. At least, nothing happens on my iPhone 3G with 3.0. This means your friend won't realize the iPhone is reporting its location to you. Now, of course, if you use MobileMe's "pop up a message" feature, or heaven forbid, Remote Wipe, your friend will notice! The basic location update, however, appears to be silent.

This means your friend won't realize anything has happened unless he or she checks the list of accounts on the phone, sees the MobileMe account and then notes that the account has "Find My iPhone" turned on. The way the iPhone Mail client is set up, I don't see this as all that likely for someone who has a single e-mail account, since I'd expect that person to rarely or never check the list of accounts.

Once your friend does notice, though, he or she will have your MobileMe account name. Plus the ability to check your me.com e-mail. Suggest only doing this with really, really good friends whom you are confident won't come after you when they figure it out! (Edit: arvindn points out that you can use a throwaway MobileMe account for this. I think you might be able to get some mileage out of using something like "firstname.lastname@me.com", so even if someone notices, he or she might think it's a free preinstalled MobileMe account. That's speculation, though. I haven't done that and don't plan to do it.)


Find My iPhone turns the $99 iPhone into an inexpensive GPS tracking device. I used it to successfully track my girlfriend's boxes across the country from Chicago to Oakland. On the upside, despite downtimes, the service worked well at showing us exactly where her stuff was. This was a huge relief. In addition, you can program a MobileMe account into multiple iPhones and track them all from the same page...even iPhones that aren't necessarily yours.

On the downside, while the phone is $99, the the extra battery, line activation, and MobileMe subscription eats into the cost advantage over a dedicated GPS device. Overall, the cost wasn't much cheaper than the low end of a dedicated device, and both have monthly fees. In retrospect, I could have used the 60 day free MobileMe trial and saved $99. The MobileMe downtimes (twice in two days?) were also not impressive.

The Find My iPhone service is also quite limited, in that it only lets me see an instantaneous location, and it actually does only cell tower localization instead of real GPS. If I had more time (and I weren't planning to return the device), I might explore Cylay, which works with jailbroken iPhones and offers a wider range of functionality for $19.99/year. The xGPS application also claims to offer GPS location logging, but I don't know if it works with the 3.0 software.

As for returning the iPhone, I keep meaning to, but somehow it has become...precious...to me. Maybe Apple will claim a new iPhone user out of all this after all.
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