Light versus Heavy

For as long as I can remember, the majority of my work (including schoolwork) has more often than not required a computer. And so, a desktop or a laptop computer has been where I do all my heavy work. Advancements in smartphones and tablets have made it possible for a lot of people, even technically-minded people whose work may demand a more serious computer, to shift their heavy work to a mobile device. And maybe one day I’ll get there too, but I don’t see it happening soon.

I still treat my phone as a supplementary device to the main computer in many ways. For one, I treat my phone camera like it’s a standalone digital camera. I plug the phone into the computer with a cable like a luddite, transfer the photos to the computer, and delete them off the phone. For another, I still download new music on my computer, organize playlists in iTunes, and then transfer them to the phone. The phone is relieved from doing this so-called heavy work, which is dumb because modern streaming models are designed for phones and actually very light and easy.

So the phone should be a light device for me. Whenever I want to do something time-intensive, I choose the computer. And yet, I spend so much time on the phone because I am addicted to it like so many of us. So I do some of the well-known tricks, like turning off notifications – the only apps that can make my phone buzz are Phone, Messages, Calendar, and Venmo1. Everything else requires me to open the app or website and refresh. But the phone is still heavy in other ways.

One of which is its literal weight. I use the iPhone XR, which is excellent, but also the biggest and heaviest thing I’ve ever carried around on a constant basis. And because it is so excellent at all the things it can do, having it on hand makes it very compelling to start doing them, even if they don’t buzz their way into my attention. So I’ve started looking for something even lighter than the iPhone for times like going running or quick errands. My reduced set of needs for a light device are eerily similar to an introspection I wrote in 2011, when I was thinking about ways to reduce my phone usage because the monthly bill was too high. Here in 2019, I’d like my light device to send and receive text messages, play podcasts, access Pastecard, and maybe give GPS directions.

Option 1, and the transparent inspiration for the title and structure of this article, is The Light Phone 2. It’s basically a tiny Kindle that does phone stuff instead of books. I enthusiastically joined its crowdfunding campaign and look forward to getting it this summer. On paper, it does (or will do in the near future) everything on my list of requirements. The Light team promises to have a straightforward SDK, so even if it doesn’t come with an app for playing MP3s, someone else will make one. And I’m dedicated to making a Pastecard app for it, if only for myself.

However, in practice, I can already foresee that it won’t be seamless to “go light”, as they call it. And that’s my fault, not theirs. I’m firmly entrenched in the Apple ecosystem, primarily through iMessage. Swapping my SIM card between the iPhone and the Light Phone is probably going to cause a few headaches in how iMessages will be delivered, to say nothing of the “(name) laughed at (previous message)” text messages I’ll sign myself and everyone else up for. Less obtrusive but still not easy will be manually obtaining and loading the MP3 files for podcasts I want to listen to, losing my place in my phone podcast app in the meanwhile.

This brings me to option 2, an Apple Watch. That very neatly and completely solves the iMessage problem of the Light Phone.2 And seamless integration with an iPhone podcast app is certainly possible too: Apple’s own app and Overcast both allow you to leave the iPhone at home and resume listening where you left off. But I would really prefer for Castro to make their Watch app standalone. And I would certainly make a native Watch app for Pastecard.

Regardless, I will have a Light Phone in hand by the end of the summer. And if Castro releases a standalone Watch app, I will have an Apple Watch on wrist by the end of the following day. And one of those have a good chance of becoming my new light device. The phone will become some kind of middleweight, and the computer remains the heavy workhorse.

Let me go back to push notifications, arguably one of the biggest factors in keeping people addicted to their phones. When I used dating apps, I kept notifications on because of course I don’t want to miss any matches or messages from potential dates. But the apps would also send bogus re-engagement notifications like “SOMEONE swiped right on you” or “There’s increased activity in your area” or “We set up a featured match for you” and those ruined the experience.3 While turning all notifications off doesn’t wholly remove the temptation of getting lost in your apps and feeds, it certainly helps. So here’s a free but impossible app idea.

Call it Pull Notifications. The app is just a single view that shows all your linked services (Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Slack, etc.) and how many notifications you have waiting in each – the number that each service’s app would have in a red bubble. You tap the service’s icon to go to their app, and deal with it as you would. This lets you turn off notifications in all those apps and also reduces the desire to open them just to see if there’s anything waiting for you, which ultimately leads to more time wasting. And Pull Notifications never buzzes your phone on their behalf either. You have to open the app and pull or tap to refresh all their numbers.

But here’s the one design detail I’d love to see, and it does require enabling notifications for the app in settings (but only badges). The app icon is a flat #DA0101 red, the same shade as the red iOS badge, with a white circle cutout at the upper right corner. The Pull Notifications app itself can badge its icon with a number, representing the total of all the notifications awaiting you inside, but even that number blends in as part of the icon rather than demanding your attention on top of it.

Like I said though, this is more or less impossible given the current landscape of data sharing on the Internet. Services like Facebook Messenger have never provided a clean way of surfacing the unread count of your inbox, and services like Twitter and Instagram have removed those options from their ever-shrinking API methods. And more importantly, I don’t see why anyone would rightly trust a single app, even one with good intentions and a strong privacy policy, to have access to all their services. But really, I just want it for that icon-badge integration.