iPhone 3.1: Unresponsive and No Vitals, But Not Dead?

iPhone coma. Two words you never want to see in the same sentence! Yesterday I went to pick up my phone, and it wouldn’t unlock. Weird. I figured maybe the battery had died. That’s a common problem with the 3.1 iPhone software update. After 15 minutes I still had no response. What is even stranger? MobileMe said the phone was online, so I went ahead and called it. My iPhone never rang, yet the call didn’t go to voicemail until the fifth ring.

As Zapp Brannigan might say, “Kiff, we have a conundrum.” And it turns out I am not alone.

Apparently one of the new “features” of the iPhone 3.1 update is severe narcolepsy, colloquially called “the iPhone coma.” iPhones running 3.0 or 3.0.1 software are not affected, and the coma appears much more prevalent on the iPhone 3G than the 3GS. This issue seems somewhat widespread and there are several threads about this issue on the Apple discussion boards.

My particular situation of a locked phone that refuses to wake up or ring is but one of the many manifestations of this bug. Depending on when the iPhone becomes comatose, the screen may be on or it may be off. If the screen is on, the display may continue to update (i.e. the time changes) but the phone can’t receive incoming calls, nor do the physical controls or the touch screen actually respond to user input. If the phone is in locked mode (i.e. screen is off) then a comatose phone will show itself as being unable to be woken up by clicking the physical controls. In other words, it will have a black screen.

Triggering the problem is random. Since I updated to iPhone 3.1 on Sunday night, I’ve had the problem about three times a day. It’s never been in the middle of a call and it’s always been as I pick up the phone to make a call that I notice it won’t turn on. My observations of randomness and repetition are consistent with other reports on the web.

The short term fix to resolve the problem is to force a hard reboot by holding down the top and home button down for 10 seconds until you see the chrome Apple. This does not erase the data and the iPhone will reboot and be able to receive calls after a couple minutes. Removing the SIM card or restoring the iPhone from backup had no effect. Unfortunately, Apple does not provide any supported way to revert the phone to the coma-free 3.0.1 software, so unfortunately, iPhone users stuck with narcoleptic iPhones will need to wait for the bug fix from Apple.

If you rely on your iPhone 3G and haven’t installed 3.1 — wait. You’ll miss out on a few new features until Apple provides its fix, but that is a small price to pay for a reliable working phone! Those of you running 3.1, has your phone gone comatose or has it happily remained fully conscious since the update?