Last month, Shelby Bonnie’s iPad vanished from his carry-on bag somewhere at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport after a red-eye flight from San Francisco. He figured he would never see it again.Read more Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport lost and found
But sometimes our devices aren’t ready to say goodbye.
While Mr. Bonnie, an investment banker with Allen & Company, continued on his way to the Bahamas for a few days of relaxation, his iPad began a strange odyssey of its own, turning Mr. Bonnie into a digital gumshoe and the narrator of a personal thriller that played out on Facebook, to the delight of his online friends.
“I said, ‘I’m definitely going to lose my iPad, but I’m going to have some fun,’” Mr. Bonnie said in a phone interview.
The reason the iPad’s story didn’t end with its disappearance is a location tracking feature on Apple devices called Find My iPhone, which can be used to pinpoint any lost or stolen Apple device, including iPads and Macs.
Others have used this capability to very publicly hunt down missing devices before, including David Pogue, a former technology reviewer for The New York Times who broadcast the hunt for his missing iPhone in Maryland to his Twitter followers. He eventually recovered the device with the help of the local police.
When Mr. Bonnie discovered the iPad was missing after he left the Fort Lauderdale airport, he turned on Find My iPhone and saw that his tablet was at Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel at Graceland — in Memphis. The app represented the location of the device as a glowing green circle on an aerial map outside the hotel, with its distinctive heart-shaped pool. Read more Hollywood International Airport lost and found
His best guess was that he had lost the iPad in the airport when he was stuffing a travel pillow back into his carry-on bag and that the device was now in the company of another traveler who had picked it up.
That person had apparently decided not to turn in the device to the lost-and-found department at the airport. Through Find My iPhone, Mr. Bonnie sent a message, visible on the lock screen of the iPad, telling whoever had the device to call his cellphone for a reward. No one did.
Over the next few days, Mr. Bonnie began providing regular updates on the iPad’s whereabouts to his friends on Facebook, providing screen shots from Find My iPhone that showed the device headed to downtown Memphis and at the Links at Riverside, a golf course. “IPad is on the move,” one of his updates said.
Most of his posts got more than 100 likes on Facebook and dozens of comments, as Mr. Bonnie’s online acquaintances became more engaged in the story.
“Please keep your fans informed as to the results of the mystery,” one commenter said.
By coincidence, Mr. Bonnie nearly bumped into his iPad on a short layover from the Bahamas. As he waited at Concourse C at the Fort Lauderdale airport for a flight back to his home in San Francisco, he saw on Find My iPhone that his iPad was on an airplane approaching Concourse C.
He quickly located the gate for an Allegiant Air flight arriving from Memphis and looked over the passengers disembarking from the plane.
He remembered he could use Find My iPhone to trigger a distress signal on his iPad. He activated the feature, but heard no sound. He told his Facebook fans he was within 100 feet of the iPad.
“This is better than ‘Game of Thrones,’” one commented.
He concluded that the iPad must have been inside checked luggage that never entered the terminal. By the time he got to the correct baggage carousel the iPad had left the airport.
“At some point it became more about the storytelling and less about the iPad,” said Mr. Bonnie, a co-founder of the technology news and reviews site CNET. “Everybody loves a good story. It’s more entertaining than getting the iPad back.”
Mr. Bonnie saw an opportunity for mischief when the iPad finally seemed to stay put in a residential neighborhood in Miami Lakes, a suburb of Miami. On a map, it looked like a nice home with a swimming pool, Mr. Bonnie said.
He boarded his plane to San Francisco, ordered in-flight Wi-Fi access and spent $50 to have five Mylar balloons delivered to the house the next morning. On the card, he listed the occasion as “Thinking of You.”
“Friendly yet slightly creepy enough for them to want that iPad out of their house,” one of his Facebook friends said.
A voice mail message left by a reporter for the phone number associated with the Miami Lakes address was not returned.
The balloons appeared to have an effect. The next morning the iPad was on the move again — back to the Fort Lauderdale airport. Mr. Bonnie, in San Francisco, was watching the device traveling on the map when it occurred to him that whoever had it might be taking it to the airport’s lost and found.
He went to the airport’s website and began filling out a missing item claim form when his phone rang. It was someone from lost and found.
“As described by lost and found when they called a second ago, a fairly elderly woman came in a few minutes ago and said she had gotten the balloons and thought it would be a good idea to return the iPad to the airport,” Mr. Bonnie wrote in a Facebook post. “She said to thank me for the balloons, but she didn’t really want to call.”
“Better than ‘Serial,’” a friend commented on Facebook. “Better than ‘This American Life.’ Better than everything.”
Mr. Bonnie paid to have his iPad shipped home by UPS. He received it in San Francisco on Friday. He hung a banner saying “Welcome Home” on his front door.
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