Thursday, September 24, 2009

Please Leave Your Cellphones Off

"My phone isn't working," she said.

I glanced at my mother. She was going to be on a flight to Singapore the next morning, and off for a good portion of the week. That her cellphone would break down now — now, of all times — was just Murphy's Law at work.

Fortunately, part of my job involves testing mobile devices. I'm still a digital producer, mind you, but someone's got to test out the hundreds of tips and tricks that the cellphone companies offer to their user bases. Such a task just happens to fall within the fine print on my contract; I've gone over six or seven devices so far, and I try to finish them up at the rate of one each week.

Not that I'm experienced with mobile devices, mind you, but I approach them with a fairly strong technical background. I can set up technical components, clean computers of viruses, and make small fixes to household appliances. If there was anyone in the house who could solve a cellphone problem, it was likely to be me.

"So what's wrong?" I asked.

"It won't turn off."

I did a double take. "It won't turn off?"

She demonstrated it for me. It was a fairly common phone model, I must add, which was little different from the devices I had been testing for the last few months. She was pressing the Power button on the top of the phone and was getting the Shutdown menu... but nothing beyond that.

In short, the phone just wouldn't turn off.

"That's what I said," she insisted.

I inspected the phone for a bit. It seemed as though it was in perfect working order, and a number of tests with the standard functions proved that. When I tried to turn it off, however... nothing. Nada. Zilch. It stubbornly refused to shut down.

I tried pressing down on the Power button as hard as I could, thinking that maybe she just wasn't pushing it hard enough. All I got for my trouble was a very familiar imprint on the flesh of my thumb.

Eventually I set the phone aside. "You don't have to turn it off, you know. I mean, you can just leave it on to receive calls and messages, like the rest of us do."

"I know that," she said, "but what am I supposed to do with it on the plane? They might ask me to shut it off."

I raised an eyebrow. They were going to tell her to shut it off, obviously. And darn it, the plane trip in question was the next day. Either she was going to have to do without a phone for the duration of her trip, or we were going to have to solve it the same night.

Two hours and more than a few Internet guides later, I was no closer to solving the problem. I had the feeling that I had read all that there was to know about a handy-sized cellphone, except for the simple, incredibly elusive ability to turn it off.

We decided to settle on a workaround: She was going to borrow a cellphone the next morning, and in the meantime, we were going to take down a few of the more important numbers so that she could still make her calls abroad. That would give me a few days to drag her device to the nearest service location and get it fixed.

And that was when my brother showed up, picked up the phone, and asked: "Did you try opening it up?"

I raised another eyebrow. "No," I admitted.

He flipped open the casing, pulled off the battery, and had a look inside. "Seems okay," he said, putting everything back together and flicking on the Power button. The phone lit up.

He pressed down on the Power button. The phone went off.

"You've got to be kidding me," I said.

He turned it on again, then turned it off.

"You've really got to be kidding me."

"You mean it wasn't working like this before?" he asked.

"No," I said, taking the phone from him and checking the settings. "The battery must have been on too tight. Or maybe the casing was loose, so the Power button wasn't connecting to its own switch. Whatever it is, I have no idea."

We gave the phone back to Mom, who returned to her last-minute packing. Now she had her own cellphone to bring along, so that the nice friendly stewardesses could remind her to turn it off just before the plane left the airport.

Walking back to our room, my brother gave me a curious look.

"I thought you tested cellphones at work?" he asked.

"Yeah, well," I said, "it's not like... what I mean is... well, obviously..."

He smiled out of the corner of his mouth.

"Oh, shut up," I said.

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