Time Doesn't Fly on Airplanes

A lot of work today can be done from anywhere, any time, and from any device. This is result of multiple revolutions, including the Internet, smartphones, and Wi-Fi. But when did connectivity become a requirement?

I've lived through several stages of online connectivity. I remember modems that coupled with a telephone handset. I've worked on X.25 networks. I can remember being impressed by the speed of 56-Kbps modems.

Throughout these evolutions, online was always an option. However, the ability to work offline is becoming endangered. It wasn't long ago that it took just a little preparation to be productive offline. For example, before a flight, I might sync my email, and ensure I had the most current version of work files loaded.

Today, my content and apps are in the cloud. My PC is a reincarnated VT-100 terminal. Technically, email can still be processed, but most of my Inbox is filled with links to something unreachable offline. I can't accept or schedule meeting requests because my calendaring server isn't available. I can access some docs, but there are issues if they're shared with multiple contributors.

Perhaps the best thing to do on a plane is watch a video. I usually have several videos, including recorded webinars and YouTube presentations, that I need to review -- though access to all of those are via links as well. Few video providers make their content available for offline viewing.

Perhaps I should give up on actual work, and instead move to busywork. I need to book some flights (nope), do some research on some upcoming purchases (nope), schedule some appointments (nope), find a new plumber (nope), and read the newspaper (unlikely).

Perhaps I'm making this too complicated, and I should just write a report or other document. Turns out that's not so easy offline anymore either. Most of my writing tends to involve ad-hoc research. I've grown accustomed to finishing paragraphs with a Google search.

I'm going about this all wrong. I should celebrate the lack of distractions and just think big thoughts. There's nothing more satisfying than just thinking for several hours. For example, I thunk up such a great new angle on a current project that I immediately want to message it to a colleague -- oops! -- can't collaborate offline. Instead, I'll have to jot it down in an offline email for sending hours from now after I land and connect -- back to that sinking feeling of not being productive.

My phone is a bit more helpful. At least it'll send the email when I land. My phone is also willing to queue up my tweets. But even my mobile apps expect connectivity. I subscribe to a few newspapers, such as the NY Times, but there's no way to download an issue for a flight, and the likelihood of the content not being cached correlates with the interest level of the headline.

Speaking of mobile connectivity, have you ever noticed that "airplane mode" policy has never made sense? Up until a few years ago, airlines insisted Airplane Mode was insufficient, and instructed us to turn off our devices. Today, we can keep using Airplane Mode, but that turns off Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, even though those services are permitted.

The good news is many airlines now offer inflight Wi-Fi. I've had some luck with Wi-Fi on domestic flights. But I recently bought an hour of Internet time on a transatlantic flight that had lower throughput than my handset- coupled modem from the '70s. Southwest occasionally offers me free drink coupons, but I'd prefer Internet passes.

As our apps, content, and workflows have moved to the cloud, we've promoted connectivity from a nice-to-have to an essential requirement. For most of us that's been a reasonable deal. Broadband connectivity is practically ubiquitous. We now enjoy connectivity in the most unlikely places, such as streaming Internet radio in the car. Wi-Fi and 4G coverage are pretty easy to find these days, and connectivity is getting better.

My Samsung phone with T-Mobile now gets up to 1-Gbps speeds in some cities. New notebook PCs are coming out with 4G built in. The cellular and satellite companies are racing to bring us 5G and low-orbit Internet in the next few years.

It's not just the PC and the Internet, everything around us is becoming connected. If I want to know the temperature, I check my phone -- which oddly doesn't have a thermometer. Traffic reporting helicopters have largely been replaced with networks of cameras and sensors. My watch and DVR use their networks to set themselves. Everything is connected. I don't even slow down at the tollbooth any more.

Fragments of offline productivity still exist, but they won't for much longer.

Dave Michels is a contributing editor and analyst at TalkingPointz.

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