Why can’t you track a missing phone using Plan B

Here by missing I mean stolen or lost handset, not misplaced. By phone I mean Android, not iPhone (I do not have an iPhone although Plan B does have an iOS version) or Symbian (lots of people ask me for help have a Symbian device, but it’s out of the question to track a handset running an outdated OS), or BlackBerry (I know nothing about it).

I have the impression that if you lose your Android handset and have no mobile tracking app installed beforehand, the best choice is Plan B, at least that’s how lookout inc advertizes it. In their app description in Google play it says Plan B is your last resort to find your missing phone. This is the first and only ‘find my phone’ app that you download AFTER you’ve already lost your phone. In case you haven’t heard much about it, take a quick look here.

And that’s what the blog, forum and tweets say too. After people repeating it here and there, I come to believe and recommend it to anyone who lose an Android handset and ask me for help.

However, does Plan B work like lookout say? I decide to explore it a little bit more when someone tells me that Plan B does not work.

The first step I take is installing it to my handsets. At the moment I have two Android devices, Sony Xperia neo running Android 4.0.4 and LG LTE 2 running 4.1.2. So I will test it on both devices. I go to Google play and search Plan B, only to find that it’s not compatible with any of my handset. Frustrating, right?

I finally manage to find a note below the app description stating that it only works with Android 2.0-2.3. A page from lookout official website also confirms this where it says that Plan B does not support Android 3.0 (it’s intended for Android tablet only) +. Are you kidding me? ICS was released almost one and half a year ago. 18 months passed and still no support for Android 4.0+? Well this isn’t something good because according to the latest report, devices running ICS(4.0.x) and Jelly Bean (4.1+) together account for some 45.1% of all Android devices. If Plan B is really designed as the last resort for missing Android devices, don’t just sit and wait until all Android 2.0-2.3 devices disappear from the market.

I do not have an Android Gingerbread handset, so I could not test Plan B. But I will go on anyway. As we all know, it requires network connection to install Plan B (basically anything) to your Android device, be it WiFi or mobile data. However you have no control over it once the phone is in somebody else’s hand. The installation will fail if the thief

1. Disable WiFi and 3G/3G data.
2. Turns off the phone.

Well it seems to me it’s like impossible mission 5. I mean, if someone took your handset, will he powers on it, enable WiFi or 3G/4G and downgrade it from ICS to 2.x simply waiting for you to track and find him? Alright I will be fair; every mobile location app faces the fact. However, even if you managed to install the app onto your handset for some kind of coincidence, you still have issues to solve.

1. Make sure the thief or his buyer (the thief may resell it, right?) does not change the SIM card which is highly unlikely.
2. Ensure no one removes the app which is also impossible since anyone can see the Plan B icon on the screen without much trouble.
3. For any good reason the thief or his buyer does not perform a factory restore or flashes a new ROM.

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Well, it seems like impossible mission 6 now, not to mention Plan B may crash for unknown reasons (port taken by other apps, or could not auto-start or compatibility issues). So you see there’s a huge hurdle between you and your handset even if Plan B is installed successfully.

Above explains perfectly why you can’t locate your missing device using Plan B. If lookout treats Plan B seriously, there are a few things to consider.

1. Add Android 4.0+ support.
2. Hide the icon, and app from app list and task killers.
3. Stop anyone from disable WiFi or 3G/4G once SIM card changed until correct pin entered.
4. Take and send pictures of user once SIM changed as well as location data.
5. Lock the phone once SIM changed until correct pin entered. Paid version does have remote lock and wipe.
6. Text LAC and CellID to the given number in case of loss of WiFi and mobile data.
7. Get into the ROM so a factory restore will not destroy it.
8. Find a way getting into bootloader or something else which allows auto-install before any new ROM is flashed.

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