Opinion: Apple, the iPhone and the future of travel

By Jonny Evans

I talked about Apple [AAPL] and its future place within the travel industry at a London conference this week. Organized by Eye For Travel the show clearly underlined the growing impact of new mobile technologies across this industry, with Ginger Taggart of Disney Destinations International grabbing lots of attention when he urged others to recognize the empowering effect of social media on customers in the business. Here's what I had to say:

[ABOVE: Real impact: Here a skydiver uses his mobile to book a hotel room -- while he dives from a plane to land on the beach outside that same hotel.]

Slide One

I'm Jonny Evans.

I write about Apple, mobile and technologies like NFC, M2M, and more. I've been writing about this stuff since the '90's. I'm fairly focused on Apple in this presentation, but these things aren't happening in a vacuum.

Slide Two

Look at the industry.

-- Tourism receipts hit $909 billion in 2010
-- US air travel tickets reached $82.1 billion in 2011


These are big numbers, and new technology champions are attempting to find a way into all aspects of the travel value chain.

I'm talking about new mobile payment solutions, fleet management, guest services, there's activity at every level. Not all of this activity comes from inside the industry itself. I'm sure some already in the business feel under attack -- how can they fight back?

For travelers it's wonderful. Smartphone maps take you to where you want to go; apps help you explore the local area, find the right flight, places to eat, even apps to translate what you want to say.

You need to expect other changes, too. At least part of what's going on is to facilitate transactions and to give people some power over the journey itself. That's why the Air Transport Association's looking at how mobile tech can help optimize the 'travel experience'.

[ABOVE: My Keynote presentation as shown, but now transformed into a video clip.]

Slide 3

I've been watching Apple since '99. I've probably reported every slice of news, every rumor, every sneeze the company's made in the last 14 years. What has it taught me? That predicting what it's going to do is fraught with peril. Not everything the company could do it does do, and sometimes things we think it's going to do tomorrow don't happen when we expect them to.

If we're honest, we know Apple is already part of the travel industry. Just look at all those travel-related apps. Just look at the increasing number of travel sales being made from an iPad. And, of course, there's more, which I'll come to later.

Later (perhaps) this year the company is expected to introduce NFC (that's Near Field Communications) support within iPhone 5. Now, there's some problems with this, in some ways (at least when it comes to payments) NFC is fragmented with different financial institutions offering up different payment systems. That's why those NFC devices already on the market are really just consumer-focused trinkets. The infrastructure isn't fully evolved yet.

At its simplest, NFC is a contactless technology that lets a device speak with another device at close range. The idea is you can wave your device like an Oyster card on public transit, or to pay for things, or to access interactive features in other devices you find when you're out and about. What's exciting about it is its secure, or at least, it's going to be.

We know airlines are experimenting with NFC. Google has been working with a bus company in New York to trial the tech for use on public transit. Barclaycard has been involved in similar trials in Europe. People want to see if consumers will use it, how it is used, and if it is used at all. Most recently the NFC forum told us that consumers in Germany are beginning to get comfortable with the tech.

When Apple launches NFC inside an iPhone it's going to be in its own interests to try to put its own weight behind these attempts to kick-start an infrastructure to make the solution interesting. A Barclaycard representative today told me to expect mobile payments via NFC to become mainstream across the next 12-18 months. There's already good consumer interest in the tech.

Slide 4

The Apple effect is already being felt. I've visited hotel rooms equipped with Macs for in-room entertainment; I've read about restaurants who use iPads to take orders; in-room entertainment systems and airlines who lend the things for in-flight entertainment to passengers. Apple hasn't targeted this market, this has been a natural evolution because its devices work so well within these industries.

Slide 5

Here's a slide that talks about some of the things people are already doing with Apple in air travel.

-- Many airlines already offer iPad integration on in-flight entertainment systems. I think this first happened in New Zealand in 2010.
-- BA offers an iPhone app to book flights; air staff use iPads to track passenger requests
-- Air crew already use iPads to replace flight manuals

-- Beyond mobile, social networks are getting in on the action, for example, the huge Best Western hotel network is the first hotel brand to be fully bookable via Facebook.

Here's the Air Transport Association again: By 2020, IATA aims to offer 80 per cent of passengers self-service options throughout their journey. That will be for things like booking, reservation, in-flight entertainment, baggage reclaim -- almost everything you do when traveling, with the possible exception of waiting in line at customs.

Though even that wait may speed up as retina scanning technology hits those customs desks.

[ABOVE: Retina scans for air travel.]

Slide 6

It isn't just about air travel. There's cruise companies and hotels already attempting to develop solutions that match mobile with their business.

These new mobile technologies are really shaking things up.

What Langham Hotels are up to is really quite interesting. Langham Place, Mongkok, Hong Kong is offering guests the loan of an iPad for their stay. These are loaded with a city guide, a Cantonese-English translator, maps, advice for using public transport, a restaurant guide -- even a guide as to what wines best match classic Hong Kong food. The iPads even contain a pre-loaded library of eBooks and magazines. That's using the insanely popular Apple device to improve the nature of a guest's visit.

SpeechTrans is something else. Speak into your phone and it will translate what you say for you. It will even translate back for you. The solution lets you have a coherent conversation with someone else in a different language without a translator.

Think about that.

Given that speech recognition only seems now to have finally come of age, I think that's an amazing invention. It's powered by Nuance, the same people who power Apple's Siri assistant. As other languages get included -- well, in future the language barrier won't be a barrier any more, at least that's how it looks from here. This thing even works on conference calls. 

It does another thing -- take a picture of a sign and it can translate the words on that sign for you, that feature works with 154 languages.

I have to say I really think SpeechTrans is amazing technology. It truly opens up the world to anyone.

Then there's all those in-room services -- concierge, room service, entertainment, heating. There's a developer -- called Intelity -- who is already building an iOS solution for that. This also integrates hotel management, business monitoring and more. The solution's award-winning and has been picked up by leading hotel brands: Four Seasons, The Hilton group and more.

These few examples should help illustrate just how far-reaching the disruptive effect of these new tools is inevitably going to be across this -- and other -- industries.

Slide 7

Apple gets feedback. And has quietly been filing patents that promise new solutions for travelers in the years ahead. To find out more about these filings I urge you to read the Patently Apple Website, which scours each Apple patent for news and information. But don't forget that just because a patent exists doesn't mean the product's going to ship. Patent filings are just maps of intellectual space from which future ideas can grow.

Slide 8

Apple's patented solution is an app called 'iTravel'. It's an integrated iPhone app which will let you reserve types of transport, including flights and hotels; acts as a boarding pass; at baggage reclaim and delivers local information for where you end up. It even -- at least, the patent filing describes -- allows for personal identification. In other words, your iPhone won't just be your wallet, but your passport, too.

Apple's patents for identification implementations -- such as cash transactions or personal ID -- mean it has to be a no-brainer the company will eventually deliver products that support NFC, as that technology is being widely adopted as a viably secure mode of confirming identity by banks, big business and retailers.

Once again, be warned, it's still early days for this technology and most analysts don't expect it to really hit mass market until next year.

Slide 9

Where are we now?

I've told you a little about what's already happening. But already your smartphone is:

  • Your tour guide
  • Your travel magazine
  • Your augmented reality machine, finding you information about the local area
  • Your translator
  • Your currency converter
  • Your device to find, choose and reserve a hotel
  • There's even a personal security app, Buddy Guard. The premium version of this will send in a rescue team if you need to be rescued. That's the whole thing  -- Men In Black stuff: helicopters and security guards. All at the touch of a button.

Slide 10

This is disruptive technology. It delivers demographic data at the deepest level. User-focused solutions to transform the travel experience. This is the Internet not just of places and ideas, not just of things, but the internet of people. The only challenge will be to sift through all this information.

[ABOVE: Augmented reality + smartphone = information everywhere.]

Slide 11

Did I mention the Internet of things? Driving that is a technology called Machine To Machine, or M2M. There's challenges to the evolution of M2M -- partly through tangible problems such as the world running out of IP addresses, partly through the need of a network infrastructure capable of carrying and understanding all the dumb data being shared by objects as mundane as a washing machine.

I won't talk about everything on this slide. Just two ideas:

-- Lost baggage is a pain. It's a crisis for the customer. It's a public relations nightmare for the hotel or airline. Stick an NFC or M2M tag on the baggage and you should be able to find it, just so long as it's still on the network. So not a complete guarantee against theft, yet, but certainly a big help when your bags end up in the wrong part of the airport.

-- Another idea that's been talked about for some time is use of NFC devices as car keys. The scenario's like this: You call a car hire company, and hire a car. They send you an SMS message which puts a code inside your phone. They also message the car that's closest to you they have available to rent. Using your phone's mapping technology, you go to the car and wave your phone over the lock. The car unlocks, get in, wave the phone and the car starts-up. You never need to visit the rental firm, you just let them know when you finish with the vehicle and they rent it to the next customer (after cleaning it up, of course).

Of course, many of these ideas aren't new. What is different is that this time round it looks like they may actually become real.

Slide 12

So I've gone a bit further, and done some speculation.

There's already work taking place on smart signs for advertising. I imagine in future you'll have smart signs in hotels and public places -- wave your phone near these and you'll get a translation.

Then there's Iridium -- the people who used to make satellite phones -- well, they're using their satellite infrastructure to develop an automated machine-to-machine system for aircraft. This was approved for use by the US FAA last year, and means passenger flights across the Polar Caps will be possible for the first time. Which should cut an hour or two off of some journeys. Previous navigation systems didn't work at the Poles.

Analysts believe that by 2025 every car will be connected to a mobile network. That means every car will have a built-in SIM. They'll be contactable. You'll never lose them. You'll enjoy a range of in-car services, including multimedia streaming over 4G networks. You will however also get speeding fines and road taxes as you travel, and where you are will always be known.

I also imagine that, in future, devices in your hotel rooms will know what your favorite TV shows (for example) or room temperature might be, simply by interrogating data you hold on this inside your phone. Data that's harvested by your device before you leave your home.

My fear, of course, is that as the entire travel experience grows more user-focused and more comfortable, we may find the challenge and reward of visiting new destinations will shrink.

Slide 13

I'm almost finished now. This slide was really just about using a picture of a girl dressed in a fabulous costume and a man in a hat playing a tiny guitar.

What I hope I've managed to achieve in this presentation is to give a sense of how much things are already changing. You see, we're not looking into the future any more, we are the future.

As these devices become ever more essential items to anybody traveling anywhere using any service, then it must surely stand to reason that, in order to unlock the potential value to be had within this tidal wave of change, it's essential to get involved now, to focus on the users and to ensure you already have a mobile presence that offers something useful, something distinctive, something to help reinforce your brand.

I believe this applies in any business, within any industry.

As people's use of mobile devices becomes pervasive, then your presence on those devices will become the digital equivalent of those glamorous people you put on your reception desks: you'll want your app to make a good first impression, and such is the customer power in the new smartphone age, your products and your services must be able to back that good first impression up.

Got a story? Drop me a line via Twitter or in comments below and let me know. I'd like it if you chose to follow me on Twitter so I can let you know when these items are published here first on Computerworld.    

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