The Life Digital Revisited

Some Things Are Still Better on Paper

Trying to remove paper from my daily life over the past four months has been a very interesting challenge.

It’s not been as easy as I expected. Some interactions still rely heavily on paper documents, with electronic versions replacing them quite slowly.

Let’s start with books, newspapers and magazines.

I’ve had some very mixed results here. While it’s convenient to replace the heavy bulk of magazines and books while travelling, especially as airlines are getting very strict on hand luggage limits, I couldn’t help noticing a resurgence of paper in airport lounges and on planes. Families seems to favour books over digital content when travelling with kids and toddlers, both on European journeys and on long-haul flights.

Similarly, while travelling transatlantic and through the US, I saw more and more books being used than in recent months. I set up my Kindle and iPad mini with plenty of reading material but failed to use them. A Kindle doesn’t offer the same tactile experience and reading one page at a time isn’t very appealing. Worse, magazines on an iPad are a very bizarre experience. There’s no consistency in experience: some magazines display articles vertically with horizontal swipes to move to the next, some go page by page, and even worse some require a double tap to access the photos. And all suffer from the tiring intrusion of adverts, which interrupt your concentration. Not to mention that looking at pictures from National Geographic on an iPad mini is far worse than the already small compact format of the paper magazine.

In addition there’s the problem of battery management. The Kindle seems to have an exceptional battery life, which might be because I read four pages in six months. Otherwise I felt compelled to carry two extra Anker battery packs, a small one for the phone and a large one for the iPad.

Overall, with a laptop, an iPad mini, two phones, a kindle, three chargers, headphones and the usual accessories, I found my cabin bag rather heavy. I could at least take some comfort that I wasn’t the only one in the security lines suffering from this seemingly endless parade of devices.

While flying United Airlines in the US, I found my iPad (or another advanced mobile device) was essential: the airline is rolling out a Wi-Fi based entertainment system that requires passengers to access a portal from their own device. No more screens embedded in the backs of the seats.

Which leads me to airline tickets, hotel bookings and car rentals.

I found the United Airlines app far superior to any I’ve seen, with complete integration of the booking process, flight tracking, entertainment system and account management. Not only is it intuitive to use but also gives timely updates on gate changes, delays and seat changes.

Booking hotels showed the difference between Europe and the US. While it’s equally easy to book a room online or through an app in the US and Europe, the check-in and check-out experience varies greatly in the two regions.

Europe is still paper based, with face-to-face registration with usually a paper final invoice at check-out. In the US, the check-in could be done through an app, with an electronic invoice at check-out. In fact, every time I asked for a paper copy I could see how much of an inconvenience this was now becoming for the hotel staff.

The reverse was true for car rentals. In the US it was a very people- and paper-intensive process that took a frustratingly long time. Some European countries are still paper based, but in Germany for instance, the Hertz process is entirely digital, with the exception of the paper contract given to drivers in case they are stopped by the authorities. In all cases, we still relied heavily on paper or plastic driving licences, national identity cards and passports.

With regard to payments, in most countries using a debit or credit card was easy, with a few twists, such as a PIN and chip debit card in the US will be declined unless processed as a credit card. This caught me out the first day until I remembered. I also experienced some issues with the UK bank network being down for an eight-hour upgrade at the wrong time for me.

Cash is king everywhere though, especially in restaurants, hotels and taxis in the US and Europe. It also lets you negotiate prices, which isn’t an option for electronic payments.

Restaurants are one area where you’d think paper would be swiftly replaced. Yet despite being told they exist, I haven’t seen a single chain where menus were electronic and where order-taking was through touch screens or mobile apps. In any case, they all produce bills and receipts on paper, and welcome cash.

It seems that paper dominates in restaurants and the investment needed to adopt an electronic infrastructure would be too costly for this type of business with low margins. Hotels have made the move as the complexity of their different booking processes (online, directly or through a broker, on auction or at the last minute…) has pushed them to optimise their back offices where paper would only slow things down.

At present, regulation and compliance means that car rental companies may not be able to digitise their operations as quickly as they’d like, although this will undoubtedly change.

I am personally less certain about the growth of e-books and e-magazines. While they save on weight and make instant distribution a reality, the lack of common standards is a hindrance. So are the new problems they create: battery management, storage management, screen size. What was a complete let down, in my experience, was the Kindle as a book replacement. It’s light, it stores many books, but I simply didn’t like it. However I will give it another go until the end of the year as the millions of adopters and readers must know something I’m not seeing at present.

With payment it’s much simpler — Visa and MasterCard offer great solutions, as does PayPal, which can be used as a replacement in many instances. However, when everything fails (and it does), cash is king.

After a summer living the life digital, what have I changed?

I’ve not cancelled my magazine subscriptions as I had planned. But I am consolidating my devices, probably into one or two, as the laptop is still an absolute requirement, probably accompanied by an iPhone 6 Plus. Carrying too many devices has become a massive inconvenience and, literally, a pain in the neck.

However, I still think the future looks promising for digital. I was very impressed with United Airlines’ in-plane Wi-Fi entertainment and the completeness of its app. I also look forward to the day when we can select food from a menu and see dishes on our smartphones before turning up at the restaurant.