Is Your Phone On? Yes, There Is an App for That

ON? is like Yo!, but just between you your phone. So why has Apple banned it?

Daniel Stuckey

Daniel Stuckey

There are, already, a universe of apps to remind us that our devices' batteries are being wasted on them, indicating that they're also operational, in our pockets, on our desks, in our beds, tethered to our beings. Hell, it seems that phones these days are all about telling us they're powered on. 

But recently I caught wind of a new app called ON?. It forefronts the simplest and most frequently asked question of all: "Is my phone on?" If you're old enough to own a land line, then a dial tone should be relief enough. But cell phones don't have dial tones. So what's the next best thing?

Of course, the glow of a lover's late-night text doth tell us the phone still has life. But when a lover is away or if you haven't paid your bill, there's no simple, frictionless way to make sure that a phone is really, in fact, working.

Unfortunately, ON? has yet to be accepted by the guardians of Apple's app store. It remains unreleased, banned, censored. This despite its helpful support page and an experienced, eager bunch of capitalistic founders.

So, without further ado, get ready for a Motherboard exclusive. Here's what ON? looks like in action:

Left: ON?'s app icon appears on an iPhone's home screen. Center: The app's only button (drum roll). Right: Ta-da! Screenshots courtesy of ON?

All it takes is one tap and boom—you know if your phone is on. 

ON?'s arrival is timely, just as the TSA has begun to demand that for purposes of screening certain gadget-wielding passengers, "Powerless devices will not be permitted onboard the aircraft." Considering that some TSA agents have recently questioned the existence of the District of Columbia, ON? could be the app to get you on the plane faster. Take that, TSA Pre™!

"It's 99 percent accurate," Frank Lesser, one of ON?'s creators told me when I called him (luckily, his phone was on). The other one percent, he explained, provides for the chance that someone could be running ON? through an emulator.

Lesser recently authored an op-ed for the New York Times, which introduced the concept of ON? as being part of a new frontier set out for by apps like Yo. 

According to Lesser, ON? is far more deserving of a million dollars than Yo. As a simple alert system, Yo might have already been reworked for Israelis to dodge incoming missile attacks, but ON? is far more intuitive and simple in purpose and design. Yo is practically the most complicated thing in the world when compared to ON?. Yo is about communicating, it's about other people. ON? is just about you and the burden that comes with caring for a phone.

What good is an app these days if it can't simultaneously order you Chinese and pizza, identify that song you might never hear again playing in the elevator, and tell you if it's the best day of the month to conceive a child? It's the app that performs the simplest of all tasks.

Lead Creative Director Tavet Gillson demanded that such an app ought to work "reliably and safely, without all the fuss," and the simplicity of ON?'s design makes it a real show stopper. ON? was developed in about eight minutes, whereas Or Arbel spent a whole eight hours coding Yo. “It took me 459 seconds to program this,” lead programmer George King told Lesser. “I want 10 percent.” 

A new generation of utilities like ON? are sure to be surging into mobile app stores. The most overlooked, unmodulated parts of our everyday analog neuroses will meet their phone-ified futures, heedless to the gag reflexes of developers and tech writers.

What good is an app these days if it can't simultaneously order you Chinese and pizza, identify that song you might never hear again playing in the elevator, and tell you if it's the best day of the month to conceive a child? It's the app that performs the simplest of all tasks. It's the app that turns your phone into a flashlight, or a not-so-accurate compass, or simply the settings that adjust the brightness of your screen. It's something far simpler. Much, much simpler. At its heart, ON? is a call to just stop thinking about what apps do, and appreciate them for what they are.

Is it stupider than Yo, the app that unimportantly, and rather declaratively pings a user's contacts at the click of a button? Probably. It's probably stupider. Because making something stupider, or easier to think about, it seems, was the goal of the app's developers: to shed light on how dependent we've become on our devices—and how little we really think about their status.

We've gotten so caught up with what's going on "on" our phones that we've forgotten the most basic thing about them. Sure, they're there, it seems they're there at all times, chiming, chirping, reminding, controlling, taming, knowingly smirking that we're destitute without them. But what if they die? Are they on, now?

"It's too bad that Apple hasn't accepted ON? yet," Lesser told me, because, as much as I admired the design, then I could actually say something substantial about the user experience. "Well, technically, they already rejected it and said we needed to 'add functionality,' or something like that."

The ON? team has re-submitted the app with a new function: "tap to tell a friend," which opens up a new email that you can use to let your friend know that your phone is on.

When I told Lesser I'd be interested in at least trying a developer's test version of the app, and that I had the proper software for that purpose, he CC'd the app's developer, George, who said he was busy—presumably improving ON?—and really just didn't have the time right now.