There are plenty of ways to destroy an iPhone: You can, as I have several times, shatter their screens, rendering them effectively unusable. And you can, as others have recently found, take them to a third-party repair service, which sometimes leads Apple to brick your devices. Now there’s an even simpler way: You can set your device’s calendar back to 1970.
On Monday, Apple partially confirmed a widely reported rumor in a brief post to its official support site. “Manually changing the date to May 1970 or earlier can prevent your iOS device from turning on after a restart,” the post reads. Apart from indicating that this bug can affect iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches, and suggesting that an “upcoming software update” will squash the bug, Apple provides little other information about what went wrong—or why this is happening at all. 9to5Mac, which posted video of the bug in action, also claims that some pranksters have been trolling Apple store employees by setting back the calendars on display devices. However, it's not clear how many, if any, real customers have been affected.
Wired’s Brian Barrett offered a few more details last week, explaining that news of the bug spread thanks to a fake advertisement that appears to have originated on 4Chan. The advertisement claimed that setting your phone back to Jan. 1, 1970, will unlock an Easter egg that allows you to “warp back in time with a classic Macintosh theme to relive the magic” of early personal computers. In practice, however, the bug—which “appears to only affect 64-bit iOS devices,” according to Barrett—plays to a glitch in iOS’ underlying Unix architecture. (It’s worth noting that Apple was founded in 1976, so setting your phone back to 1970 to find “a classic Macintosh theme” doesn’t make sense.)
As Alex Cranz writes in Gizmodo, however, this sits strangely in relationship to Apple’s claim that anything before May 1970 is in the danger zone. The Unix explanation makes sense because Jan. 1, 1970, is when time starts for Unix, its zero hour. According to the initial theory, iOS is unable to make sense of a moment before time has begun to elapse, which causes it to break down. Cranz explains, “Simple mathematics dictate that every process that follows would also zero out. Thus. Boot loop.” It’s not clear why the same problem would occur if the date were set to May of the same year.
Here’s my theory: By suggesting that you can activate the bug by setting the calendar to May, Apple—which has not responded to direct requests for comment—is admitting to the problem while still making it difficult to actually activate it. The conditional language of the company’s advisory—“can prevent your iOS device from turning on after a restart” (emphasis mine) instead of “will prevent”—could be a product of such hedging. Fudging the month might, for example, keep vengeful children who read about the bug online from destroying their parents’ phones. Here at Slate, however, we’re too attached to our devices to find out whether May really is just as dangerous as January. For now, at least, we’re going to take the sensible approach and refrain from trying to push back the clock.