My phone, the brick

Over the holidays, I had quite an interesting experience: My smartphone was bricked. I hadn’t jailbroken it and screwed up along the way or anything. The only thing I did was go on a brief vacation, in a tiny remote town in the eastern part of Germany.

The town had practically no data coverage at all. It also had no ATM, but that’s a different matter altogether.

My smartphone was a brick – it could only make phone calls, and allowed me to play chess. And let’s be frank, making calls is the tiniest part of how I use my phone these days. Even tinier than playing chess.

Just think about this for a second: If you live there, in this small vacation town, owning a smartphone doesn’t really make any sense. You’d be wasting a few hundred bucks for some apps, and for surfing at home in your own wireless network.

So that happened in Germany, one of the richest, most industrialized countries worldwide. The effect is much more common in other, less industrialized parts of the world.

That offline weekend serves as a valuable reminder. It’s important to remember that not everybody has a smartphone, and not every smartphone owner has network access all the time.

We need to take that into account when designing mobile services. Allow for offline sync where possible, reduce data transfer as much as you can. Design your apps and mobile sites to degrade gracefully. You might thank yourself later, when you’re on vacation.


And in this town, that’s the case for everybody there. I know you remember, too, the experience of traveling abroad with your smartbrick, and hopping from one wifi oasis to another.

When I brought my parents to Berlin last summer, they were first surprised that there’s no such thing as a worldwide phone plan with data that you can easily get, and then shocked to find out that it doesn’t even exist Europe-wide. Given how easy it is to cross a lot of these borders, and how likely you are to end up with a chess-playing brick in your pocket, something’s gotta give. I like to think that you’re right, and people will design apps to fail more gracefully in data-free situations, but I also hope that somebody figures out a way to make a mobile data plan that works all over the world and makes a boatload of money selling it.