iPhone death and resurrection

This is a tale of stupidity and bravery. A harrowing trip from the depths of sorrow to the pinnacle of triumph. A rousing adventure of our modern world with an important Lesson For Us All. It’s how I killed my iPhone and brought it back to life.

I’d put on an old pair of jeans to paint the bathroom, and when I was done I gave them to my wife, who was about to start a load of laundry. I was, of course certain that my iPhone wasn’t in the jeans’ pocket, because I wouldn’t want the phone on me when I’m painting, so I didn’t check the pockets when I handed the jeans over. This is the stupid part of the story.

A couple of minutes later I ran down to the laundry room and opened the door to the washer. As I pawed through the clothes, I saw the phone’s screen glowing through the denim. The jeans had barely gotten wet, but enough moisture had gotten into the dock connector to make the iPhone think it was plugged in. It had put up the warning message that I’d plugged it into an unapproved device.

I shook the phone and blew into the dock port until the warning message went away. I tried to turn it off, but it wouldn’t respond to the power button. The screen told me I had no cell service, so I dug out a paperclip and popped the SIM card from its slot so it could dry. I was hoping the extra opening on the top would help dry out the power button, too.

At first, the phone seemed to be working pretty well. I could flick to change screens, the home button worked, and most of the apps launched without a problem. Buttons near the lower right corner—iPod, Google Reader, and PCalc on my home screen—were iffy; sometimes they responded and sometimes they didn’t. Soon, though, the phone began to run amuck. Apps were launching on their own, mostly those same apps near the lower right corner. The iPod app would not only launch, but begin playing music or videos. I’d hit the home key to stop it, but a few seconds later another app would launch. Basically, it was acting as if someone were tapping randomly on the lower right quadrant of the screen.

I got out a blow drier and ran it around and around the phone to speed evaporation. All the while, I kept pushing the power button, hoping to get the phone to shut down so it wouldn’t damage itself any further. But it wouldn’t go to sleep on its own, because the phantom tapping kept launching apps and keeping the phone awake.

After a reminder via Twitter from @kshanemcfarland, I put the phone in an airtight plastic bag with some rice, a sort of poor man’s desiccator, and left it there until morning. Eventually, it stopped launching apps and went to sleep, but then it started flashing the Apple logo every 15-20 seconds. I was reminded of HAL:

I’m afraid, Dave.

Dave, my mind is going.

I can feel it.

I can feel it.

My mind is going.

The next morning the battery was dead and there was no more flashing. I plugged it in and waited. Several minutes later, it was charged enough to start up. It worked! Every app worked, although the power button was still dead. Not so bad, I thought. If I shorten the autolock time down to one minute, battery life won’t be too bad. I unplugged the phone, put it in my pocket and went off to work.

Unfortunately, this is not the end of the story. When I got to work and pulled out the iPhone to dock it, it was flashing the Apple logo again. Shit. I talked to one of my coworkers about it, and she set me up with a real desiccator that she’d been using on a project a few weeks ago. And that’s where the phone stayed the rest of the day, under a plastic dome, cut off from the rest of the world.

I removed it from the desiccator that evening and plugged it in overnight to give it a full charge. The next morning, its behavior was the same: perfectly fine when plugged in (except for the dead power button), perfectly fine for a little while when unplugged, then back to the flashing logo.

I did a full restore, which took over an hour, but in the end the result was the same: an iPhone that would work only when plugged it—basically unusable. I was resigning myself to a a trip to the Apple Store for a replacement.

Let me interrupt the narrative here and give you some background. This is a first generation iPhone, bought about two years ago. Although it was working well before the incident, I had firm plans to replace it with a more modern model. But I didn’t want to replace it with a 3GS, not, at least, until I saw what the fourth generation iPhone was going to be. My expectation was, and still is, that this summer’s iPhone will blow the 3GS away, probably using the A4 chip that’s in the iPad. My goal was to hang onto my old phone until June or July when the new model arrives. Getting tangled up in a new AT&T contract this close to the launch of a new iPhone was the last thing I wanted.

I did have a safety valve. My daughter has been agitating for an iPhone for months. If worst came to worst, I could get a 3GS now, then give it to her when I got the fourth gen phone.

OK, back to the story:

I felt certain the dead power button was the key to the phone’s failure. Something was in there, screwing up the connection. That, I reasoned, was the cause of both my inability to turn the phone off and the flashing logo (which looked like an interrupted reboot). Since the phone was useless as-is, I decided to crack it open and try to clean out the power button. I had nothing to lose.

I followed the instructions on ifixit.com and soon had a few pieces of iPhone laid out on the table.

The power button is in the upper right corner of the aluminum back piece. I dug around in some crevices there with a thin stainless steel pick. I blew compressed air in and around the area. I swabbed the area with isopropyl alcohol. And when I put the phone back together the power button worked! And so did the rest of the phone—no more flashing logo.

I have no idea which part of the cleaning did the trick, and I don’t care. My iPhone is working again, and if I can baby it through these next few months, I’ll have a new phone in my hands and can put this ugly incident behind me.

I should mention that the phone did not make it through the case cracking unscathed. I left a couple of scratches on the aluminum back. More important, the black plastic antenna cover didn’t snap fully into place when I reassembled the phone. Fortunately, I have an Incase Slider Case that fits tightly around the phone and will keep everything together no matter how much it gets jostled.

Update 3/4/10
The other day, I pushed up really hard on the lower part of the Incase Slider and the iPhone’s antenna cover snapped in the rest of the way. Now the scratches and slight distortion in the aluminum back are the only evidence of my phone surgery.

So there you have it. Monumental stupidity rescued by perseverance, pluck, a set of instructions posted on the internet, and a heavy dose of blind luck.