Photo: Diorama Sky (cc)
I stood at the top of the stairs of a friend's apartment building in Washington, D.C., with a dead iPhone, a burned-out porch lamp, and no idea of how to reach him. This was the culmination of a long drive from the wilds of Pennsylvania, and I was exhausted and out of options.
How did I find myself in this situation? Power! Or, rather, a lack thereof. I knew I'd have a long drive, and needed to use a GPS navigation app for the last part of it. The first 170 miles were essentially taking two interstate highways; the last part in D.C. was tricky. I thought I was prepared. I'd topped up my iPhone, charged a RichardSolo 1800 external battery, and packed a car charger (an inverter) with a USB jack. And I had just returned a rental car on a family trip in which the inverter worked just great.
And the rental car I picked up for the D.C. drive, swapping a family minivan for a subcompact, seemed ideal. It had a line-up of inputs and power-givers that I examined before driving away from the airport: an actual cigarette lighter (despite being a smoking-free car), an 1/8th stereo input jack, a USB port (labeled iPod), and a power-only DC receptable.
Of course, none of the charging methods worked with an iPhone. The cigarette lighter provided no juice, and the power-only slot failed to offer any amperage as well. The USB jack hated the iPhone, perhaps retaining loyalty to iPods, cycling between connected and not without charging. Only the audio input jack functioned.
I plugged in the external battery, a version of the model above that had an integral Apple Dock connector. I watched that drain while I listened to podcasts, followed by the internal battery. I thought I was timing it fine, leaving enough charge to pull up the GPS navigation when I entered D.C.'s orbital perimeter.
Four blocks from my friend's house, the iPhone died. I hadn't written down his address, although I knew the rough location from a previous visit, nor had I managed to record his cell number. Having typed the address into the GPS app, though, I had a sense memory of the address and managed to find the building.
That's what led me to the darkened porch late at night facing a row of unlabeled door buzzers. No amount of banging on the door roused my friend, who lives up a floor and in the back. I was about to drive off to find a payphone or a late-night cafe with an electrical outlet, when the obvious buzzer lit up in my head. Idiot! I had my laptop with me, and it had previously connected to a shared Wi-Fi network neighbors used. My iPhone's contacts were synced via iCloud. It was just a matter of firing up the laptop, launching Skype, and clicking to call. "I'm downstairs!"
My friend was amused, and I learned several lessons. First, given how reliant we can be on a smartphone (for both entertainment, as I was listening to podcasts for much of the drive, and directions), I should have swapped cars when I couldn't get charging to work. Second, a pen and piece of scrap paper can save the day. And, third, bring a flashlight.
Glenn Fleishman, @glennf, is the Executive Editor of The Magazine, a fortnightly electronic periodical for people interested in everything. Glenn also hosts The New Disruptors, a podcast about connecting creators and makers to their audiences, and writes as “G.F.” at the Economist's Babbage blog. He is a regular panel member on the geeky media podcast The Incomparable. In October 2012, Glenn won Jeopardy! twice.