United Air Lines announced on Monday that the Federal Aviation Administration has green-lighted plans for the carrier to install equipment on its planes that soon will allow passengers to access the Internet in-flight via wireless.
While the prospect of receiving Viagra alerts at 30,000 feet may dampen anyone's enthusiasm - soon there literally may be no escape on Earth from spam -- the news from United has to be welcomed by travelers who lose thousands of productive hours annually to SkyMall magazine and the incessant chattering of the lady in Seat 18B.
This doesn't mean travelers will be cruising the Internet next week while cruising over Kansas. United is only the first U.S. airline to gain the FAA's approval to offer Wi-Fi-based Internet access. (Germany's Lufthansa AG and Japan Airlines already offer wireless access to passengers and crew.) Right now the FAA's approval is just for United's B757-200 aircraft, the plane that was used in tests conducted with Verizon Communications. But United, the second-largest airline in the U.S. (behind American Airlines), intends to equip all of its planes with Wi-Fi.
Of course, given the bloodbath that is the airline industry these days, Wi-Fi service won't be free. Lufthansa and Japan Airlines charge for wireless usage, and the U.S. carriers will do the same. How much has yet to be determined, though Lufthansa bills its passengers $10 for a half-hour or $30 for a tarmac-to-tarmac flight. That's pricey compared to the $10 per day that hotels charge for high-speed access in rooms, but we're talking about a captive audience here.
Still, it may be about a year before United launches its Wi-Fi service, pending approval from the Federal Communications Commission, which will auction spectrum space to Internet access providers.
Until then, SkyMall magazine beckons.
Long Live the Battery
Here's the other good news for mobile computer users, both airborne and otherwise.
Recent advances in battery technology and notebook power consumption are expected to result in a notebook that can run for eight hours without needing a recharge.
Notebook and laptop manufacturers today routinely claim battery life of four hours, but anyone who owns a portable PC knows that figure is a joke, even if you're playing a really slow game of Solitaire, never mind actually working. Two to three hours is more realistic, and the more powerful the machine, the faster that number goes down. I own an HP Pavilion desktop replacement that is lucky to run for 90 minutes on its battery, and I don't even play Solitaire.
This development is a bit further out - three or four years -- than Wi-Fi access on flights, but Intel already is pushing computer manufacturers to have super-light notebooks ready for the market by 2008. And the chipmaker is expected to roll out a new notebook chip early next year that uses less power than the existing Pentium M processors.
Intel's interest in the notebook market is clear -- chips for these portable PCs are more profitable than desktop processors, and notebooks comprise the fastest-growing segment of the computer market. In May, notebooks outsold desktops in the U.S. for the first time ever in a full month, racking up 53.3 percent of total PC sales. The trend is not going to reverse, because users -- especially, I believe, those of us in the networking industry -- increasingly want light, portable and powerful machines.
And get them we will. It's just a matter of time.