Back to the iPhone: The Luddite iPhone
15 min read | April 27 2023
I’ve been living the Apple-Watch-only life fairly consistently for about two years now. And most of my original thoughts about it still ring true:
It’s a tiny little phone-call machine on my wrist that can give me maps if I’m in a pinch! Its got no browser, I don’t open the Mail or Messages apps on it, and I leave the watch face very simple without any bells or whistles. It’s about as ‘dumb’ of an Apple Watch as you can make. It’s perfect.
Aside from looking at my traditional watches with some longing over the last couple of years, the Apple Watch has served me really well. Not having a phone in my pocket has been freeing, but the Apple Watch isn’t perfect either. I’ve had it finely tuned for minimalism all along the way, I easily get 2 days’ battery life out of it, and I’m extremely familiar with all of its features by now… but there simply are some short-comings.
- The times when you actually are away from your phone (out of the house), the battery dies significantly quicker. Even pared down to the minimalist setup, and even if I do nothing with it the entire day (no calls, no notifications, etc.), in the absence of the phone-bluetooth connection it will likely die before the end of the day.
- It’s not the best mapping-while-driving companion. It’s okay, but it’s not something I’d use for anything further than around-town. Due to battery-shortness, the inability to charge while mapping (unless you take it off, I suppose), and the generally smaller interface (which is screenless while your hands are actively on the wheel), it’s just not ideal. Again, it works for around-town trips, but it’s not made for multi-hour navigating.
- Unfortunately, phone calls via Apple Watch are just generally not a good experience.
- The cellular modem isn’t as powerful as any phone’s to begin with, so the connection tends to be choppy and not very reliable.
- Likely for the same reason, the audio quality of the call itself is notably worse than modern phones.
- The built-in microphone and speaker on the side of the watch are bad. Aside from having to walk away to some corner so you’re not bothering the world with your wrist-based speaker-phone, you’ll be turning it up as loud as it goes and saying “what?” a lot. (Holds wrist up to ear) “What?”
- The bluetooth chip on the watch also seems to be particularly weaker and less reliable than that of iPhones. Attempting to use AirPods for a call usually works for a few minutes then just… doesn’t — not reliably, anyway. It tends to get choppy and ultimately you retreat to the despair of knowing this conversation isn’t going to work.
- In that same vein, even passively listening to content (music, podcasts) while on-the-go via AirPods often skips, breaks, disconnects, and tends to be a poor experience. The Apple-Watch + AirPods workflow just isn’t trustworthy.
- A little nit, but the Apple Watch also won’t relay audio through most other bluetooth devices. Including, and especially, car stereos. That means no podcasts while driving unless you want to wear AirPods (see the two points above).
- The Apple Watch occasionally misses notifications. I’ve never been able to explain why or how, but there are times when a notification sent from Apple’s Push Notification service just don’t make it to the Apple Watch. It’s rare, but it happens. Since those push notifications (particularly from Slack) are the basis of my coworkers’ ability to reach me, that’s a problem. Again, it’s rare, but it does happen. Aside from being a strike against dependability, it means that the device doesn’t fully quash the anxiety-inducing question of “well what if I need to be reached on Slack?”
- Speaking of Slack, the Slack experience on Apple Watch is pretty bad too. Mostly because there isn’t one. Slack apparently had an Apple Watch app some years ago, but decided to drop it and let Apple Watch users exclusively use the rich-push-notification interface instead. So I have no means of viewing any slack conversation or channel; I can only get notifications (when I’m tagged) and reply via the notification itself, with no indication that my reply even made it back to Slack. In line with the above point, I simply hope that notifications make it to me, hope that my replies make it back to Slack, and hope that there’s no other pertinent messages in the conversation since I only get notified when I’m tagged.
So there are some legitimate drawbacks… But to my initial points, not having a browser is a real benefit. I’ve specifically never opened Email or Messages (and I now realize I probably could’ve disabled them outright), the interface is extremely simple and non-distracting, and as a wearable device I often forget about it — my Apple Watch is boring. It’s exactly what I wanted! It’s a pure communicator and super-well controlled notification-presenter. There are just several parts of the Watch-only experience that I’m not satisfied by, even as a minimalist.
Having seen the Wise Phone, Light Phone, and recently read an article about “The Luddite Club” teens in New York that exclusively use flip-phones (they’d rather have no phone, but their parents desire some sense of reachability), I couldn’t help but reevaluate my initial minimalist-device presumptions and the shortcomings above. The Wise Phone and the Light Phone both look really enticing — they both have wonderful, extremely minimal UI’s, they both limit feature-sets to that which is non-distracting, and they both consider a lack of features to be their primary feature. Similarly, though without the no-features-is-a-feature pride, a classic flip-phone just can’t do most of the things smart phones can. All three of these options embody the same lack of features that I’d formed in my Apple Watch, but do so as full-fledged phones. I was fascinated by that realization and wanted to compare the short-comings they’d have versus the Watch-only experience. More abstractly, I wanted to boil down specifically what features I want out of my mobile device in general.
- It should be callable. I want my friends to be able to access me in real time pretty much any time. People rarely ever do, but I want to be available when necessary.
- A caveat here is that the device being able to silence unknown numbers automatically is a big plus. It should be callable / interruptible by people I already know, ideally.
- It’s also worth adding now that it should be callable with high call quality.
- It should not be text-able. As a slight clarification from Going Deep: Follow-Up 1, I’ve decided that I’m going to treat texts like Email in more than just notification style — I’m only going to do either while I’m using a full computer. That means desktop or laptop, likely at home. I don’t want to be text-able on my mobile device.
- It should not be email-able. Same as #2, email is a computer-activity, not a mobile activity. I don’t want it on my mobile device at all.
- It should be notifiable — on my terms. There are specific cases and times when I do want to be notified of things regardless of my current happenings. There are times when I want to be pinged. That is a feature I want, but it needs to come with high-resolution controls around how, when, and why.
- It should not have a browser. While it’s occasionally an annoyance to not be able to look up something here or there, the tradeoff is worth the cost. An internet browser being present on a device may be the single most powerful mechanism for that device becoming a time-waster. The internet profits with individuals’ attention and time. I don’t want to give the internet any of my attention or time while I’m mobile.
- It should have a minimalist interface/screen. Screen-clutter itself can be distracting, and the more things you have on a screen, the more opportunities there are to pull your eyes (and mind) away from why you looked at the screen in the first place. We typically grab our mobile devices with a task in mind. Nothing on that device should distract you from that task unless you so choose. Screen simplicity matters!
- It should support media playback and bluetooth norms. Sort of an umbrella here, and some of these aren’t make-or-breaks, just nice-to-haves. It’d be nice if my mobile device works with podcasts, can bluetooth to my car stereo, and/or can play music.
There are other features that would be nice to have in a mobile device too (some degree of calendar sync, perhaps some kind of ‘notes’ app, hotspot tethering for my laptop when necessary, etc.), but the six above are the core. And, it’s worth mentioning, the Apple-Watch does fulfill 4.5/7 of these (I’m granting it a half-fulfillment on ‘notifiable’ given deliverability issues, and I’m not granting it ‘callable’ or ‘media/norms’). But can I get all 7?
The Wise and Light Phones are both full-fledged phones, but they accomplish minimalism. The Wise Phone is a true-blue Samsung smart-phone running a custom Android flavor. Aside from UI changes (which I presume just cut out or disable most stock Android apps) and a digital paint-job, it’s 100% a feature-rich smart phone. And yet, it’s minimalist. In another perspective of minimalism (frugality), shouldn’t I assess whether the things I already have can fulfill my goals as they change? Dare I ask, can I truly accomplish minimalism with the iPhone I already have?
It feels like a strange question to ask given that two years ago I fully jumped ship to a different device altogether instead of asking that question. Perhaps I presumed that you couldn’t make an iPhone minimal. It cannot have a home-screen that looks like the Wise Phone or Light Phone, it has a lot of hard-coded features made precisely for the non-minimalist, and everything about it is boisterous. It’s not the champion of understating. Or perhaps it’s because I didn’t feel capable of switching from ‘normal’ iPhone experience straight to a minimal iPhone experience on the same device; that I already had too many hard-coded compulsions and habits around it (e.g. how many times/day we pick up and look at our phones). I don’t remember exactly.
But can you minimalize an iPhone? If they can minimalize an Samsung Android phone, why can’t I minimalize an iPhone? I’m going to try.
- It should be callable. Well, yes. It’s an i-phone, right? It also supports ‘silence unknown callers’ brilliantly and the iPhone’s call quality takes full advantage of digital carrier networks; it’s great.
- It should not be text-able. As I’ve recently realized (and possibly, recent iOS updates have made available), iOS allows you to virtually disable apps via Screen Time controls. These controls are slightly different depending on which apps you want to exert control over, but the short story is that I can have an iPhone with no access to messages. Vis-à-vis, a non-text-able iPhone. 🤯
- A subtle but very important note on ‘texting’: if my desire is to be able to handle all of my texts on my desktop/laptop computers, I actually need to stay inside of the Apple ecosystem so that I can use iMessage on my desktop/laptops. If I were to move to a fully separate system (flip phone, wise-phone, etc), I’d have no means of sending, receiving, and managing my text messages from my computer.
- It should not be email-able. Using similar controls as noted for the Messages app, we can fully disable the Mail app from iPhone. This was also news to me, but it works incredibly well. A non-email-able iPhone. 🤯
- It should be notifiable — on my terms. I’ll be honest, I’ve been impressed and comforted by Apple’s development of notification controls over the last few years. They continuously add resolution to the controls (block some notifications from this app, not others; let some notifications make noise, let others just pop up on-screen, etc.) and encourage different ‘focus modes’ for everyday-users. My ‘focus mode’ is more permanent, so I don’t use that feature, but I appreciate that the iPhone has become a sharp sword against the jungle of attention-seeking notifiers.
- It should not have a browser. Also surprising to me since Safari on iPhone was one of the most (if not the most) groundbreaking features of the iPhone — the one that established its early dominance (in my opinion); you can fully disable the browser on an iPhone. Using the same controls that disable the Mail app, you can have yourself a browser-less iPhone 🤯
- A couple of notes on this one. First, the way it handles links throughout the rest of iOS when the browser is disabled is surprisingly good. No errors, no mishaps, just a smooth experience. If you click on a link, generally it’ll do nothing. And that’s exactly what it should do! But you can still hold down the link and share it in some other way (perhaps to send to myself so I can review it on a computer later)!
- Second, and curiously, even though the iPhone has no internet browser, that doesn’t mean it’s not connected to the internet. Obviously all of your other apps will continue to work (and even in-app browsers that some apps choose to use do work), but curiously, Siri still occasionally yields webpage results in answering your questions. If you ask Siri an interesting question it can’t find a direct answer to, it’ll still give you “Here are some webpages I found…“. And in that result set you can still read a couple lines of preview text (which is often helpful enough to be done), but, as noted above, you can’t actually open those pages since you have no browser. I actually quite like this trade-off. Siri is smart enough to pull relevant information for me, I can typically get my answer from the preview pane, and I can’t fall down any kind of browsing rabbit-hole thereafter.
- It should have a minimalist interface/screen. This one is a little tricker and I’m continuing to iterate as deeply into this as I can. I’ve disabled all of my typical home screens, set the system to grayscale (with a triple back-tap shortcut to switch back to color for when I want to use the camera), setup a single screen interface that won’t distract me, and even disabled the Spotlight search suggestions that could pull me off to a tangent. I’m pretty happy with this so far. It’s no Wise Phone / Light Phone textual interface, but it’s fairly non-distracting and less busy than a normal iPhone. See below.
- It should support media playback and bluetooth norms. Needless to say, this one is great out-of-the-box.
- Other odds and ends. The iPhone has great support for calendar integrations (with selective notifications there too), hotspot tethering, notes and voice memos, podcasts, and several other utilitarian tools that aren’t cause for screen-time but are helpful when you need them.
^ Lock screen, home screen (the only one), swiped-right widget screen
All of this helped me realize my actual underlying goal as I wrote in my notebook the other morning:
[To] turn my phone into a tool that’s boring to look at and won’t grab my attention of its own volition except in rare circumstances that I approve; a tool that is only useful when I opt in to using it, and only does the specific things I want it to. It is a tool beholden to my will; I am not subject to it. It is a boring toolbox, not something I can spend time staring at.
A boring toolbox. That’s what I want from my iPhone. Not entertainment, not interesting features — a whole lot of “not“‘s, really — just a collection of tools that are useless until I need them for a specific purpose. My mobile device should be boring. Is this phone just as boring as my Apple Watch? I think so? I still have a little bit of that compulsive ‘grab my phone’ muscle, but I can already tell it’s subsiding as I cope with the new boring reality of my phone. And that’s a good thing. Nobody picks up their toolbox full of wrenches and stares at it for hours instead of actually doing things with those wrenches.
So that’s the new direction I’m headed in. The Luddite iPhone: a boring toolbox with only helpful tools. The perfect complement to the “not at a computer” state and the quiet respecter of the “at a computer” state. A device that encourages the behaviors and disciplines I seek to uphold each day. Like an Apple-Watch-Only, but with just a few more benefits.
(12/20) — Going Deep
(05/21) — Going Deep: Follow-Up Pt. 1
(07/22) — Digital Minimalism Follow-Up Pt. 2
(07/22) — Procrastination Illustrated
(10/22) — Diet as a Primer for Making the ‘Right Choice’
(10/22) — My Morning Routine, Explained
(04/23) — Avoiding the In-Between
(04/23) — Back to the iPhone: The Luddite iPhone (This page)