An iOS 6 Upgrade Horror Story, or: Back Up Your Phone!

The iOS 6 upgrade that iPhone owners everywhere are downloading this afternoon didn't go so well for this The Atlantic Wire writer, and I may have lost all the data on my iPhone 4S.

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The iOS 6 upgrade that iPhone owners everywhere are downloading this afternoon didn't go so well for this The Atlantic Wire writer, and I may have lost all the data on an iPhone 4S. After getting permanently locked out , because the usual passcode didn't work, the only option was to wipe out the entire contents of the phone. While this might trump all the other anxieties over upgrading we spelled out earlier, the moral of my story isn't to avoid iOS 6. But rather, that lesson we've heard from Genius Bar employees, tech nerds, other unfortunate bloggers, and our most responsible of digital friends: Back up your data, and do it often.

Like I said, after having major reservations about getting the latest iOS, I went for the update anyway, as I felt it was my tech blogger duty to you the readers. Looking for the performance differences on a 4 and a 4S, I borrowed the 4S from a colleague, who may now regret that decision. After going through the upgrade motions (settings > general > software upgrade), I waited for the phone to finish the process, which takes longer on release days when the server gets overwhelmed. All done, the phone prompted me with the passcode screen, which I entered: 4124. Passcode not accepted. To make sure I had typed it in right, I again tapped 4124, the number the phone's owner assured me he used for months and months: Denied. After 4 more failed tries the phone disabled for a minute. Another wrong try: Disabled for an additional 5 minutes. At that point, I called the Apple support people, who told me to stop entering passcodes because at some point, the phone might go into restore mode, deleting everything on it. (That depends on the setting of the phone.)

The Apple care employee said that getting locked out after operating system upgrades is not a common problem with iOS upgrades. "It's not something we get calls on too often," he told me. A quick Google search reveals some complaints of the same issue, but nothing widespread. The Apple support person wasn't even sure what had happened. He suggested that during the update the phone may have reverted to a previous passcode combination, which he had me try (didn't work). Or, that it had to do with a "preexisting issue." No matter, the solutions are the same as they are for anyone who gets locked out of a phone.

The only way to override the passcode setting, our case included, is to do a manual restore. Though restore is often synonymous with wipeout horror, that can have a few possible out comes, some better than others.

  • Best case scenario: The iPhone owner has backed up their phone using the most up-to-date software on their computer with all the information it had on it as of that day. The copy of the phone's contents can then be used to restore the device. You plug in the phone, right click the device, and select "restore from back-up," which will be a carbon copy of the phone you thought you lost forever. Since the most updated version of the software doesn't require a password with a restore, the end of the process will ask for a new one, which will then override whatever compromised code inserted itself onto your phone. And voila: After the restore, the phone will work 
  • A different best case scenario: The iPhone owner creates another back-up with their iTunes. Connecting the phone to the computer it normally uses with iTunes will allow you to create a new back-up. To do that, right click on the iPhone, as it shows up on iTunes. One of the options will be to create a new back-up. Click that, which will create the above scenario. 
  • Second best case scenario: The iPhone owner backed up their phone, but not that recently. This is basically the same situation as the above, but the user might lose anything that happened on the phone between now and the last back-up.
  • Decent case scenario: The iPhone owner backed up their phone, without the most recent phone software. This is kind of like the above scenario, but during the restore process there is a possibility that it will ask for a password. Now: It could be the password you had before this whole thing went down, which would be great. Or not, in which case you will still be locked out of the phone. 
  • Bleakest case scenario: A total restore. This is what happens when you don't back-up your phone. Something unexpected happens that requires a restore and the phone loses everything. Apps you've already purchased can be downloaded again, free of charge. But it still takes work to get that stuff back on there. Perhaps this lesson doesn't hit home until you've lost your (or someone else's) entire iPhone mementos, but listen to me: BACK UP YOUR PHONE.

My colleague got seemingly lucky during this process. He happened to have an April back up of his phone on his computer. Plus, the second option looked valid for his situation, too. This is where we get to the nightmarish part: neither of those things worked, telling him that the phone was locked so it couldn't even try to perform those tasks. It didn't even prompt him for a password. It just said no. The Apple care member had no idea why. He was left with that very bleak option: a total restore (Lifehacker outlines the process here), which will erase his precious text conversations, photos, contacts, apps, and everything. And that he did.

This is not a common problem but that only emphasizes the point above: Back up your data a lot of ways and all the time. Often we skip these steps because we don't think it will happen to us. Or, even worse, disaster strikes while using someone else's phone.

Update 5:20 p.m.: After wipe-out tragedy, our iPhone owner found a back-up on iCloud, which he had synced back to in July. He synced that with his recently restored phone and got everything back up until this July. Though we have a pseudo happy ending this afternoon, the lesson still remains.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.