Can You Do a Day’s Work on a Cell Phone?

“It’s really a little computer.” You remember the first time you said it, a few years ago, when you grasped just how much a smartphone can do. Full-on Web browsing, e-mail, something like a word processor: You really could do almost all your work this way. Suddenly, your big desktop machine seemed chunky, clumsy, and old.

When power failed on Monday in lower Manhattan, where I live and work, I had to put that idea to the test. My computer was dead—it’s not a laptop, so it has no battery—and my office’s servers were out. I had to work for six hours as a reporter and editor with two lifelines: a rock-solid copper landline with a vintage Bell telephone, and an iPhone with iffy, irregular cell service. (By the way, that old phone? Impeccable. Everyone should have one.)

What first became evident is that a hardwired phone helps a lot… but not without a phone book. We stopped getting the white and yellow pages years ago, and I almost completely depend on Google for phone numbers. If I didn’t have a number in my contact list, or in an email stored on my cell, I could look it up only in fits and starts, as the signal came in and out.

The second thing I discovered is that there is much more contact redundancy in my life than I realized. If I don’t have your cell-phone number, I may have your e-mail address, or vice versa. Landlines are backups. A Gmail account works when the office e-mail doesn’t, and a lot of people have extra accounts that are even older, such as AOL or Hotmail. If neither works, there’s Facebook messaging. If that won’t load, maybe a Twitter direct message will. Everyone I wanted to talk with seemed to have a slightly different route to get connected, because everyone had a different combination of outages. It’s like the plink-plink-plink of a ball through a pachinko machine: now dodging left, now to the right.

Finally, I learned about the places where cell-only work falls down. You have to have a backup way to charge the phone, of course. (I have a portable battery pack, good for about six phone chargings, and got a lot of use out of it.) Web browsing sans wireless is slow, and you find yourself ignoring certain links: skipping videos and slideshows, favoring simple text and Twitter. It also focuses the mind, because when everything takes 10 times as long as usual, you tend not to try to load Celebrity Bikini Bodies slide shows.

And, finally, you quickly suss out what designers call pain points—the spots that provide the most weariness and frustration. I found the toughest part to be simple typing, and especially editing what you’ve typed. Tiny keys and autocorrect weirdness are quite tolerable in ordinary texting and e-mailing, but for any extended work, they get really tiresome fast. I’m grateful for the iPhone’s relatively recent addition of cut-and-paste tools, but they are klutzy to use as you go, especially near the edge of the screen, doubly so if you have chunky hands.

Nonetheless, they do what they need to do, and I can prove it to you. This entire story was tapped out, in a dark apartment, on an iPhone, its screen adjusted to its dimmest setting to save power. Our new world really does work (for those with skinny fingers, at least).

Sent from my iPhone.