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iPhone Survivor: Traveling Without a Laptop

Something about human nature compels us to challenge ourselves. It’s as if evolution itself coalesces into corporeal form to drive us forward; clinging to our backs as it whispers sweet rewards to tempt us into actions to prove we are worthy of our place on this planet. For some, these temptations burst free with creative impulse resulting in works of art, literature, or entrepreneurship. For others, especially young males, these temptations lead to dangerous physical follies involving beer. And those individuals with exceptional skills, experiences, and capabilities demand even more extreme challenges. Challenges that risk their very survival.

I’ve been trained to survive some of the harshest, most dangerous conditions in our world short of combat. As a former paramedic and firefighter with over a decade’s experience in mountain rescue, I’m confident in my ability to handle everything from natural disasters to run-of-the-mill survival situations in the ocean, in the desert, and in the mountains. But nothing could prepare me for my latest challenge… surviving five days on vacation in California with only my iPhone; leaving my trusty MacBook Pro at home.

Scoff if you must, but I am completely unapologetic about my addiction to technology. As a frequent business traveler I’ve lugged my laptop to the corners of the earth and rely upon it as an essential travel tool. My first MacBook Pro even accompanied us to our wedding on a beach in Mexico (saving us from relying on a local band). But when my wife and I decided to spend a long anniversary weekend in San Francisco, I felt compelled to challenge myself and see if I could survive under such harsh conditions. Plus, bringing my laptop on an anniversary trip might have ensured my demise by other, more direct, means.

Day 1: Phoenix, Arizona — As I pull my iPhone from its cradle and shut the lid of my laptop I feel a shudder of fear. Am I up for this challenge? Is it worth the risk to my mental health? I attempt to brush aside my fears as I slip the iPhone into my pocket and stride from the door with nothing more than the clothes on my back. And my boarding pass. And my roller bag with 5 days of clothes and toiletries. And a couple of books and magazines. But technologically, I am otherwise empty-handed and defenseless.

Day 1 continued: San Francisco, California — The iPhone served me well at the airport; keeping me entertained in the mind-numbing security line with the latest news and Twitter updates. I spent the flight comfortably crammed into what my airline claims is a First Class seat, thanks to an upgrade, and catching up on some television I legally transferred over from my TiVo. It’s still early in my journey, but so far I’ve managed to satisfy my email, news, Twitter, and television addictions.

Upon landing we head to the rental car area even though we originally planned to pick up our car the next day. I check my confirmation number using TripIt, an online travel tool, as we race to the counter to find a long line being served by only two attendants. I pull out my iPhone, browse to the Web site for the rental company, and with a few clicks call the service desk. No cars are available, so we scurry to another rental company as I check rates online. We’re headed to our car before our original line clears.

We’re now navigating our way to dinner using Maps, after about 4 hours of wandering the city. I laughed in the face of the hotel receptionist as she offered me a map, opting to face my fears and place my trust in the iPhone. So far we haven’t stopped moving long enough for me to miss the laptop, and using the iPhone I’m completely up to date on my email. Being self employed, it’s difficult to go completely offline during working days; one reason traveling without a laptop is such a great fear.

Day 2: Alcatraz Island, California — We managed to find shelter for the night and survived the winds and frigid San Francisco Bay conditions, but the lack of a coffee maker in our room drove us into the wild soon after dawn. A quick search in Maps on the iPhone located the nearest breakfast restaurant, and the live mapping guided us over the death-defying hills of Lombard Street and down the other side to our ferry to Alcatraz Island.

I now find myself somewhat disturbed as I respond to emails while standing outside the prison cell that once held Al Capone. Did the mythical crime lord once sit in his cell, browsing YouTube over his EDGE data connection? Perhaps not, so I snap a picture with my phone and move on to the dining area, scanning the other inhabitants for hidden shanks.

Day 3: Sonoma, California — I’m sitting in a lean-to structure in the middle of a field surrounded by edible plants, but to touch them is to place my very existence at risk. The locals, called “winemakers,” consider the plants sacred, only to be touched in a ceremony known as a “harvest.” One of these winemakers is our host, and after five hours of participating in the ritual known as a “tasting,” I am completely disoriented yet completely happy. This Colin Lee Vineyards and Winery produces a powerful beverage with a compelling flavor I can’t seem to resist.

Using the notepad on my phone I write down the address and phone number, since they don’t use email, and I begin to research my foraging options for our evening meal. My screen appears blurry – perhaps it’s affected by the local climate? If so, the climate is also affecting everything around me, since nothing seems to be in focus.

Day 4: Sonoma, California — My laptop separation anxiety now seems completely unfounded. Four days into this challenge and I’m completely confident that I will not only survive, but thrive. I’ve been able to stay completely current with work email messages, including those with attachments. I haven’t been able to edit documents, but I’m still able to at least read standard Microsoft Word, Excel, and Adobe PDF documents. Not ideal, but serviceable considering the circumstances. Someday, maybe, we’ll be able to edit these files directly, and having even read-only PowerPoint support would be extremely helpful for following along with presentations while on conference calls. While a laptop will always be
preferable for any serious document work, basic editing capabilities will satisfy those unexpected needs when a full computer isn’t available.

One of the primary reasons I usually travel with a laptop is to have access to a Web browser. I use it for everything from itinerary lookups, flight changes, and local maps to movie times, news updates, restaurant recommendations, and general research. While the iPhone Web browser and email client aren’t as robust as the Mac OS X equivalents, they exceed my survival requirements and meet most needs. They are my two essential travel applications.

The one missing piece that makes me break out in a cold sweat when I even suspect I need it is copy-and-paste. The lack of copy-and-paste between applications, or even within the same application, is a devastating loss equivalent to having to start a fire with a bow and drill instead of match or lighter. You can still survive, but at a high cost with much anxiety.

It’s our last night in Sonoma, and I set my iPhone on the table between us with some Jimmy Buffett emanating from the speakers as we enjoy some fine wine and cheese. Chalk up my ability to survive these hard conditions to my extensive fortitude combined with the iPhone exceeding my expectations.

Day 5: Approaching Phoenix, Arizona — As we prepare for landing, I check my iPhone to ensure it’s in airplane mode so I don’t bring us crashing to the ground in a ball of wireless-induced flames. Looking back on my journey, I reminisce about the challenges I faced. From finding shelter and foraging for food, to entertaining ourselves and keeping informed, I realize the iPhone is in many ways more useful than the laptop it replaced.

With maps, a nearly feature-complete Web browser and email client, photos, video, calendar, and… what’s that called… a phone, it offers much of the core functionality I use for non-business travel. With only a few more features, such as copy-and-paste, PowerPoint viewing, and perhaps basic Office document editing it might even be suitable for lightweight work trips. The large screen and functional Web browser offer advantages over my old Blackberry; attached documents look much better, and unlike the Blackberry, the Web experience is more than sufficient for most browsing. I do have a slight advantage since I’m very quick on the iPhone keyboard and able to write full email messages with two-thumb typing faster than some people on a
standard desktop keyboard.

While I couldn’t survive a full business trip with just the iPhone, I not only didn’t miss my MacBook Pro during this challenge, but accomplished feats the laptop could never match. While my laptop technically supports location-based mapping (with an external GPS), photos (via the iSight), and phone calls (Skype), I would need to buy some seriously larger trousers to fit it, and the required spare batteries, in my pocket.

And as my journey of survival ends I realize that I am not a brave man. If I truly wanted to challenge myself I’d keep the laptop and try to survive without the iPhone. But that’s a feat I’ll leave for braver souls. Besides, this being our anniversary trip, the presence of the MacBook Pro justifiably wouldn’t have been good for my continued health.

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