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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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