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Immaculate Reception, or, A MobileMe Mystery

I’m traveling in Cambridge, England, and this morning I visited the King’s College Chapel, where one of the enormous stained glass windows depicts the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary: it shows her fully-clothed parents exchanging a chaste kiss.

My digital companions on this trip are an AT&T iPhone and a MacBook Pro, and for a while it seemed that they had managed a similarly miraculous feat of information transfer. I have connected the MacBook Pro to the slow, expensive hotel Wi-Fi, but to avoid nasty surprises on my next AT&T bill, I turned off data roaming on the iPhone. I haven’t bothered to set the iPhone up to use the hotel Wi-Fi connection, and it has never been in England before.

So I was astonished when my MacBook Pro notified me about a calendar event that I had entered on my iPhone. Of course, it alerted me 5 hours late (I hadn’t changed the Calendar time zone on the iPhone before entering the event), but all the same, it seemed like a case of immaculate reception: how could MobileMe sync the event from the iPhone to the MacBook Pro when the iPhone hadn’t synced with the Mac and had no data connection to the Internet?

While pondering this mystery, I happened to walk by the Cambridge Apple Store, where I had earlier bought my son an unlocked iPhone for his study abroad time here. This time I pulled my iPhone out of my pocket and saw, to my surprise, that it had associated with the Apple Store’s open Wi-Fi network. The solution suddenly became elementary, my dear Holmes.

My deduction was that all Apple Store Wi-Fi networks broadcast the same network name, and since I’ve used this iPhone on an Apple Store network in the United States, it happily (and silently) joined this one, and took the opportunity to sync my calendar with MobileMe.

I believe there was a time when Americans traveling abroad would regularly check for mail and telegrams at the nearest American Express office; it was their link to home. Maybe the increasingly common Apple Stores have become the modern-day equivalent.

[Jim Matthews created the file transfer client Fetch in 1989 and founded Fetch Softworks in 2000.]


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Comments about Immaculate Reception, or, A MobileMe Mystery
(Comments are closed.)

Absolutely. Look for me lurking outside an Apple Store when I'm visiting the US! You don't even have to go inside and it works outside office outside, e.g., at the SF AppleStore. (Roaming charges are the major remaining telco rort on the planet.)
Sorry to step on your setup, but the chasteness of the Jesus's parents had nothing to do with the "Immaculate Conception."

(...which says nothing about the silliness of the "concepts" -- pun intended -- of virgin birth or "original sin.")

An interesting mystery solved, nonetheless.
Oops. Never mind. Looked again and saw that you were talking about Mary's parents.
Glenn Fleishman  2011-01-21 09:40
You are absolved.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-01-24 06:49
For those whose religious education is as weak as mine, this link may shed a bit more light on what is considered the "immaculate conception."
Stephen Camidge  2011-01-25 13:36
The article almost explains. Catholic Doctrine teaches that Our Lady was born without Original Sin, thus immaculately conceived. She remained without sin all throughout her life. A better reference is:
Juerg Reimann  2011-01-24 15:26
Uhm, I would consider this "feature" a reasonable security hole. Because I can set up a WLAN hotspot at a public place with the same SSID and run tcpdump there...
Michael Croft  2011-01-24 16:40
This is a well-known issue with public Wi-Fi, and even has its own cute name.
Chris jones  2011-01-24 23:57
It shouldn't be a hole because you shouldn't trust any network you don't own/control! Sadly not enough services enforce/offer ssl :(
I have to tell you that I took this picture of the Immaculate Reception in 1996

(Hopefully the link comes through)
Enjoy (but please don't download)
Lou Judson  2011-01-24 15:26
I'm more interested in Madonna's Immaculate deception, myself... '-)

In religion is the doom of the world... to misquote a source! I mean this in humor, be not offended.
Mike Cohen  2011-01-24 15:43
The same thing applies to 'attwifi' networks in Starbucks. Once you connect in one Starbucks it will automatically connect in any Starbucks.
Dave Cameron  2011-01-24 16:00
I'm from Pittsburgh and The Immaculate Reception is a whole different story
Heh. "Immaculate Reception" is how I feel every time AT&T doesn't drop a call when I'm downtown.
It's even more fun once you've connected your iPhone at one of those coffeshops who doesn't know how to set up their "Free WiFi with purchase!" router. You know, the ones where the SSID is still "linksys" or some such. Then you'll occasionally find yourself pulling out the phone in random places you've never been to and wondering why you're on WiFi.
I have a related mystery...

The only time I ever use the Kindle app on my phone is when I'm on the Tube. At the end of my journey I quit the app and lock the phone before going aboveground. When I open the same book on my iPad at home, it somehow syncs to the place where I finished reading on my phone. How does Amazon know that info when I never ran their app in a place with wireless reception?

It's evil, I tell you. Evil.
Glenn Fleishman  2011-01-24 19:22
Amazon sends updates as you read. Even in the Tube, there's some cell signal. (When you quit the app, do you really double-tap the Home button, then tap the X in the Kindle app? If so, why, given that you've already bought into the Kindle world and are reading using the system?)
Nic Wise  2011-01-24 19:17
Nothing new there. I've done this all over the world with Apple Stores, as global roaming is painfully expensive. Firesheep freaks me the hell out, but otherwise, it works great.

If you don't know what firesheep is, google it NOW, and never use another open network again.

Now, the REAL bug was in iOS 4.0, which even if you had roaming turned off (the default), it would still allow transmission of some data when it was going from airplane mode to normal mode.

Over 3G. At £6-10/meg. Ouch.

this happened to me a number of times. Just enough data to download my mail. Nearly impossible to reproduce.

I filed a bug with apple, who closed and fixed it in (I think) 4.1.
AlfieJr  2011-01-24 19:30
um ... maybe you should just turn WiFi off when out and about, except when you actually want to use it and know what is happening with it? is that too obvious?
Lou Judson  2011-01-24 22:28
I will have an iFone as soon as it comes out on Very-Zone. How easy is it to turn the wifi on and off?
Glenn Fleishman  2011-01-24 22:40
Very fone-y. Wi-Fi can be turned off and on with a software switch. You can also disable 3G roaming, and mobile data, all separately.
El Aura  2011-01-25 01:04
I am wondering why you had not switched off Wifi altogether? Apart from the battery drain, you would constantly had to dismiss the 'Do you want to join network xyz?' messages as your iPhone came across a new network.
Jim Matthews  2011-01-25 04:29
I suppose that the optimist in me hoped I might come across an open network, although in my limited international travel experience they've been quite rare.
You can turn that prompt off in the settings.
Richard Gaywood  2011-01-25 05:56
Hi Jim - I wrote a followup post you might find interesting about something similar that happened to me: