A story about technology.

Last weekend, like much of the east coast of the US, we found ourselves lying in the path of Hurricane Irene as it made its way northward. Our basement flooded last February, and although we’d replaced the faulty sump pump responsible for that first unpleasant experience, sump pumps need power to operate, and I was convinced we would lose power at some point during the storm. So much so, in fact, that I paced until about 2am, thinking of how I could possibly discover it, should it occur while I grabbed whatever little sleep I’d be getting that night. By my estimates, based on how quickly the pit in our basement floor was filling on a regular basis, I had about 15 minutes without power before water started making its way across the floor.

I realized I needed to know as soon as (or as close to the moment as possible when) the power went off. I walked around the house, looking for things that would beep if the power was cut to them, but I could find nothing. I settled on a rather sketchy plan: I would sleep in the basement, close to the pump, where our FiOS power supply was located. This has a battery backup attached to it, and I assumed (as with many UPSs) it would beep if activated. Additionally, I would leave a lamp on, and set my iPhone to wake me every 30 minutes, so I could mitigate whatever situation might be unfolding by waking and surveying the room for the light. A lousy plan, but it was all I had left in me at that point.

About seven minutes into The Plan®, I realized I was not going to be getting any sleep, primarily because I would not be able to relax enough to make it restful. As a last resort, I turned to the App Store. In it, I found an app simply called Blackout Alarm. You turn the app on, plug your iPhone in, and if at any point your phone detects that it’s running off of the battery, it blares an alarm. That’s it! I plugged the phone in, turned it on and tested it a few times by pulling the plug out of the dock. Eureka! Something so simple, yet so perfectly tailored to my exact need at that exact moment, and more importantly, singularly providing me a sense of comfort that I didn’t expect to get at all that night.

And that leads me, finally, to my point: a few years ago, this would not have been possible at all. I’ve been a smartphone user since 2004. The ease and ubiquity of the App Store model, particularly on iOS, has been an inflection point for mobile software distribution. We all know all the stats, so I won’t be reiterating (or regurgitating) them here. Because what’s important in this example is not numbers, but the story. Had app distribution not been democratized so much, to the point where a single individual can afford to spend the time creating and distributing a highly-focused, exceedingly simple app to serve a purpose like this, we would miss out on these moments. Scoff at Apple all you like for its adherence to words like “magical” in marketing products, there’s something very special about the times you can actually use technology – with little to no effort – to demonstrably improve your life in the moment. That’s no small accomplishment.

We use a lot of tech every day, and many times we grumble and question why we bother with it as we wrestle with a failed OS update, a bricked phone, or any other of a litany of tiny problems. But there are also times like this, however few and far between, when the dreams of the past are realized, and the promise of what was to come at all those World Fairs and Epcot Center pavilions arrives in something as simple as a decent night of sleep. I know, the app isn’t curing diseases, but life is all about finding joy and meaning in the little things. And this little thing made a big difference, if only for a night. Hyperbole? Sure, I’ll give you that. But think about it. What is all this for if not to make our lives better?

Author: Seth Clifford

I'm here for the open bar.