These 'find my phone' services will ease your mind
Don't wait until after you've lost your phone to enable services to locate it or wipe your data. Plan ahead!
Danny Sullivan is a journalist who has covered the search and internet marketing space for over 15 years. He's founding editor of Search Engine Land and Marketing Land, and writes a personal blog called Daggle (and maintains his disclosures page there).
A few months ago, I dropped my phone in the back of a cab. It got turned in, and I recovered it the next day. Phew!
But it was a much needed wake-up call that I hadn't enabled any type of "find my phone" or "wipe my phone" services on it. Don't make this mistake! It's free and easy to do for the iPhone and Windows Phone; a little more work and maybe some slight expense for Android.
All the services I'll cover below allow you to do these things:
Locate your phone on a map
Ring your phone remotely
Lock your phone remotely
Wipe your phone remotely
Think of each option as a sort of "Defcon" level for your phone, allowing you to escalate your response before going into full panic mode and wiping the phone clean.
Locate brings up the location of your phone on a map, using a Web browser. It's a handy way to tell if your phone is still near you, which might cause you to relax about making use of the other lost-phone options.
For example, once during a business meeting, I realized my iPhone wasn't in my backpack. Did I lose it at my departure airport? My arrival airport? Somewhere among the different buildings of the company I was visiting? Using the locate feature, I could see it was nearby. Following the map, I was both embarrassed and relieved to discover it was sitting on the front seat of my rental car in the company's parking lot.
Ring is useful for when you suspect your phone is very close to you. The service will make your phone ring loudly, even if the volume has been turned off. I've used this in the past to find a phone I'd misplaced somewhere in a room. Very handy.
Lock is helpful for when you think the phone might be found in the near term. Maybe you know it's been handed in to some lost-and-found for you to pick up. Maybe you're willing to wait a bit for it to turn up before wiping it. Lock allows you enable a passcode so that no one can access the device, if you don't already have a passcode on your phone.
Wipe is your option of last resort. Using this, you can erase all the information on your phone. That's helpful when you consider just how much information we store on our phones or how connected they are to things like social-media services or e-mail accounts.
How do you get these features on your phone?
iPhone - Find My iPhone is a free service from Apple for those using iOS devices like the iPhone or the iPad. It'll even track your MacBook. It's built into iOS 5, but you'll need to ensure it's switched on; those with older versions of iOS may need to download the Find My iPhone app. Once it's running, you use Apple's iCloud service to find the location of your phone, to make it ring, to remotely lock it or wipe all its data.
Windows Phone - Microsoft offers a similar service for Windows Phone, called Find My Phone. As with Apple, it's free and allows you to locate your phone, remotely lock it, erase its data, or make it ring. You enable it via the Windows Phone "Find My Phone" page, using a text message.
Android - Unlike Apple and Microsoft, Google doesn't provide a "Find My Phone" type of service. That's disappointing, and I wish Google would catch up with its competitors in this regard. Yes, Android is open-source. Handset makers and carriers are free to do what they want with the service. But it seems Google could easily offer this as as a service direct to consumers from a trusted source. After all, plenty of third-party companies do.
Google Play lists many third-party lost-phone apps for Android. But so much choice actually made me more nervous, not less. Which third-party did I really want trust among all those unknowns? A few people I know recommended Lookout, and I've been happy with it, so far.
The free version will locate and ring your phone, but it doesn't provide remote wipe or lock. If you want that, you have to pay $3 per month or $30 per year. You also get some other features for upgrading, such as photo backup. Personally, I felt more secure going with a service that I had to pay for than one that was purely free. But there might be other good third-party apps out there that do the same as Lookout for less or for free.
Whatever you choose, if you're on Android, choose something. It'll save you from that sinking feeling when you realize that your phone is gone. If you're on the iPhone or Windows Phone, make sure you've enabled these services. Having them built-in doesn't help, if you've not turned them on.
Some last things to keep in mind. It should be obvious, but to make phone-finding services work, you have to allow your phone to share its location with these companies. If that makes you uncomfortable, then don't use them.
The services are also not perfect. They only work when the phone connects somehow to the Internet. If someone were to switch your phone to airplane mode or find some other way of preventing it from connecting, the services might not get a current location much less be able to remotely lock or wipe your device.
Still, I'd say in many cases, these find-my-phone features will provide peace of mind. Check them out, switch them on, and then let's hope you never need to use them.