What it’s like to go mobile-only for a day on a college campus

Mar 20 2013

Recently, Reese News Lab students have conducted experiments in living without a smartphone and social media.

But because the lab is working on a project on producing media for mobile devices, I thought it was time that someone tried a computer blackout. I’d give up my laptop for a day, navigating the UNC campus with just an iPhone and an iPad (with a Bluetooth keyboard). I figured that way, I could find out how mobile-friendly the world really is.

Before I could attempt this task, though, I knew I had to plan carefully. I had to make sure it wouldn’t interfere with my schoolwork, and I tried to account for as many problems as I could beforehand.

I knew I would be unable to print because UNC’s printing program requires you to install specific hardware. I also would lose access to a good word-processing program. So I added all the documents I needed to my Google Drive and converted them into PDFs. I also knew I’d lose access to Spotify, so I downloaded MixerBox, which makes playlists of YouTube videos. Set with my arsenal of solutions, I felt confident that this day would be relatively easy, but I quickly discovered that you can’t account for everything.

A mobile-only day begins
When I awoke on the day of my experiment, I was pleased to have no trouble going through my routine of checking emails and Twitter. All of the mobile sites I encountered were effective and easy to navigate. But my positivity about the day was soon shattered by the first text I received: a free Redbox code. I don’t have a TV in my room, so without my laptop, a disc was useless. This was the first omen that Netflix would be my saving grace later.

With a sense of dread, I embarked on the rest of my day. I immediately noticed how much lighter my backpack was without a laptop, so at least there was one perk. In class, I was already used to doing the reading on my iPad. It was after class that I ran into trouble.

Help! No tabs!
Sticking to my Thursday routine, I headed to the Reese News Lab. However, I realized that doing any kind of research was going to be hard. When I am on a computer, I love using tabs and multiple windows. I can read something in my browser and take notes on it in a Word document. As I write this, I have six Word documents, Spotify, an Excel spreadsheet and four windows in Google Chrome (31 tabs) open. And yes, those numbers were higher until I was embarrassed by how much I had open and decided to close a few.

In the lab, I decided to scroll through Twitter and Facebook to find the latest news. As I tapped through articles, though, I realized how much I missed the tab and find features. Links in both of these apps opened a new page within the app. However, these pages were slow and harder to navigate. Multimedia components from places like the Wall Street Journal were especially troublesome as I tried to navigate their normally mobile-friendly site within these other apps. Also, I couldn’t just search for keywords on any page. Rather, I had to search for terms line-by-line.

Frustrated, I decided that I just wanted a break and opted to try the USA Today crossword, but I hit another road block. I couldn’t access it on my Safari app: USA Today requires mobile users to purchase its crossword app. I’m a college student, so thanks, but no thanks.

All eyes on screens
I headed to the Student Union. Although I saw plenty of people I knew there, they all were engrossed by whatever was on their computer screens. The screen blocked them from social interactions.

I headed back to my room around 5 p.m. to charge my phone, which was already in the red. I turned on Netflix, but I quickly got antsy. I needed something else to do simultaneously so that I wasn’t just mindlessly watching a TV show. I couldn’t do any work on my iPad while I had Netflix running, so I resorted to cleaning. This lasted for an hour or so until I decided I just needed to get out and go to dinner.

But the problem wasn’t over. After dinner, I started to try to teach myself HTML/CSS with Codecademy. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to attempt a few more courses, but in a rather ironic turn of events, I found the site was not mobile-friendly. All of the site’s features worked on my iPad, but it was not easy to navigate and use. Even with my keyboard, which hides the onscreen keyboard, the site responded by zooming in too much. Sure, most people aren’t coding from mobile devices now, but why can’t we?

After facing yet another disappointment, I spent the rest of the night using my iPad to watch Netflix and my phone as a second screen, where I could read articles and play games,. But I still never found an adequate solution. I couldn’t even clean out my inbox from my phone easily, as the mail app tries to archive messages rather than delete them. I opted to go to bed early knowing that as soon as I woke up Friday, I could have my laptop back.

Lessons learned
So what did I learn?

  1. It’s expensive to use only mobile devices. While content is often free for desktop users, mobile users are forced to buy apps to access the same content.
  2. Mobile devices make multitasking harder.
  3. We miss social interactions and are less observant hiding behind computer screens.
  4. We can still perform most of our daily routines on mobile devices. In fact, most of the sites we interact with have a mobile-friendly version.

And when I finally did check my laptop, I found I hadn’t really missed anything. Sure, I was unable to get ahead on my work, but I had still been connected to the rest of the world. So could I learn to survive without a laptop? Absolutely. Do I want to try it? Not in the slightest.

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