It was a white Samsung Galaxy S4 and she held it in both hands, typing with her thumbs. Her friend, sitting across the lunch table, talked non-stop, but nothing caused the Galaxy user to raise her eyes from the glowing rectangular touchscreen.
Stansted Aiport, on the outskirts of London, serves short-haul European trips, while Heathrow and Gatwick Airports cater to long haul traffic. Options for refreshment are limited to fast food burger chains, high street sandwich cafes like Pret a Manger or – as these ladies had chosen – a branch of the nationwide Weatherspoons pub chain.
The Weatherspoons is a confusing place. It is one of the few outlets at Stansted which could be accused of serving a ‘sit down’ meal, but is equally frequented by those for whom the absence of daybreak is no obstacle to the desire for a few pints.
The customers, therefore, represent a diverse group. This pair were harder to define. They weren’t there for a full meal, but neither were they lined up along the bar for a quick drink. They sat at their table, sipping coffee, surrounded by their luggage. I’d put them in early 20s. They were obviously old friends.
Their dynamic was interesting to observe. One of the pair didn’t produce her phone at all and talked at the other, who was glued to her device, but seemingly able to continue a conversation while typing in rapid fire fashion on her screen.
The Galaxy she was using had a cable trailing from its USB port, connecting into a portable charger about the size and shape of a lipstick – bright pink lipstick.
I found a certain irony in this after Samsung’s series of ‘wall hugger’ adverts, in which it highlighted the tendency for iPhone users to find themselves tethered to airport power sockets as they tried to keep their devices alive. The reality is that most smartphones – regardless of brand – still don’t make it through a full day of heavy usage.
This is driving several user responses. Some, especially those who travel frequently, have chosen to use a tablet and phone in concert, relying on the bigger battery and screen of the tablet as their main digital touchpoint. In these instances, their phone serves a few purposes: it is the ‘back up’ in case the tablet dies, the voice device for ’emergency’ calls and it fills the gaps when portability precludes access to the tablet, e.g. standing in queues or on public transport.
Others go big: they buy phones like the Samsung Galaxy Note, Microsoft Lumia 1520 and Apple iPhone 6 Plus, which by virtue of their larger form factors are able to accommodate batteries which stand a chance of lasting a full day. For many, especially those with smaller hands, they see them as much as small tablets as large phones and will often even carry a separate, smaller smartphone.
However, our user at Stansted – so inseparable from her phone – had taken a different route. She’d bought one of the little pocket chargers which carry enough power to recharge a phone two or three times over. They come in every shape and size these days, from her bright pink lipstick design, to rugged looking ‘power packs’ which can charge two or more devices simultaneously. Microsoft even sell one under the Lumia brand which serves as a Qi wireless charging pad at home, but can then be unplugged and carried with you, employing its internal battery to give you an untethered recharge on the move.
The use of these charging devices has some interesting knock-on effects. Firstly, it impacts ergonomics: using a phone while plugged into a charging cable causes users to hold their devices in different ways. The effect is especially pronounced when manufacturers place the charging port on the side of phone, making certain parts of the screen harder to access. However, knowing a device can be recharged on the move also changes the role of the phone. For instance, it could be used a portable hotspot for extended periods of time, when normally this would kill the battery. Alternatively, it allows users to rely on their phone for power draining activities, like navigation or video calling.
It’s also led to a new relationship between mobile devices and fashion. Some users keep their phones plugged into their portable chargers while they carry them around in pockets and bags. As a result, clothing and bags are starting to emerge which are specially adapted to provide larger pockets which fit both phone and charger. Some are even embedding Qi wireless charging into the bags themselves.
As for our ladies at Stansted Airport, I couldn’t help wondering whether the constant phone usage was a way of keeping a third member of the group – an absent best friend, perhaps – involved in their holiday trip? Of course, that might be a generous interpretation, as they belong to a generation for whom etiquette has evolved to find a place for digital devices, even at the expense of eye contact with those physically present.