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What should become of Airplane mode?

Heather Kelly, CNN
With the FAA relaxing rules against using phones in flight, Airplane Mode may become obsolete.
With the FAA relaxing rules against using phones in flight, Airplane Mode may become obsolete.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Airplane mode isn't just for cutting off cellular and Internet connections on airplanes
  • The feature is used by people who want to disconnect without leaving their devices behind
  • With some improvements, the mode could help restore some work/life balance

(CNN) -- As major airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration relax their rules on using electronic devices during takeoff and landing, one important question lingers:

What will become of Airplane mode?

The common smartphone feature, which disables cellular, wireless, Bluetooth, and GPS connections so you can use your mobile device while in the air, may be outgrowing its name.

Airlines quick to ease electronics rules

The Internet is having fun coming up with new names for Airplane mode that reflect broader uses for the feature. Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic offers Zen mode. Other suggestions include Freedom mode, Focus mode, Brick mode or Hermit mode.

FAA clears gadgets for takeoff
Why can't you use your phone on a plane?

Airplane mode is more than just a necessity at 30,000 feet -- it's become a tool for severing ourselves from the demands of constant connectiveness. And with some enhancements, Airplane mode could help us all put some much needed boundaries between our online and offline lives, our work and personal time.

Despite the FAA rule changes, Airplane mode isn't actually going anywhere. It still serves its original purpose, because making calls will continue to be forbidden (and probably impossible) while in flight. The new rules just mean you can play games or use an e-reader during takeoff instead of having to flip through the in-flight magazine, chat with the person next to you or be alone with your thoughts.

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Outside of flying, people have found many creative uses for Airplane mode. They use it to quickly disconnect before movies, meetings, dinners and other events where silent mode isn't enough. When traveling internationally, keeping a phone on Airplane mode and turning on Wi-Fi can prevent cellular bills bloated with roaming charges. People who use their tablets for work can employ Airplane Mode to avoid distractions like surfing the web or checking Twitter.

Toggling Airplane mode on and off can even act as a quick fix for connection problems.

The setting is also used by people who want to rein in their own smartphone use, say to tune out the outside world without actually parting with their precious handheld computers.

With smartphones, people check and send work e-mails at all hours. According to Expedia's annual "Vacation Deprivation" survey, 67% of American adults stay connected while on vacation and 76% check their e-mail and voice mail.

A recent Microsoft ad campaign for Office 365 uses the need to work remotely and around the clock as a selling point. "Office workers want technology to help them get things done anywhere, sunrise to sunset," reads the tagline. Illustrations show people working on mobile devices while on a date, during a kid's soccer game, and during a stroll through a national park.

There's been lots of talk around "unplugging" for parts of every day or week, but this all-or-nothing approach doesn't sit well with a generation of smartphone users who are dependent on their devices. Willpower clearly isn't working. Airplane mode offers a partial solution, but it's still too simple.

So how about this: What if phones offered parental control-like settings that could be scheduled and set for individual apps and features?

Access to work e-mail could be cut off at 7 p.m. Social networking apps, games and other time-sucks could be banned on weekends. Someone on vacation could limit access so only the phone's camera, maps, restaurant reviews, translation apps and travel e-books were available.

In its new iOS 7, Apple added a Do Not Disturb feature that gives some control but mostly applies to phone calls. It can automatically silence incoming calls and alerts, either during prescheduled times or on demand. A reverse do-not-disturb feature that only allows phone calls and texts (let's call it a Dumb Phone mode) could be a refreshing break.

Many people want to disconnect -- they just need a little help. So future smartphones might include even more options for reclaiming personal time and restoring some of the work/life balance.

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