Handheld internet terminals, led by the mobile phone, are promising to revolutionise contact with the customer. Jackie Gallacher reports.

Hold onto your mobile phones, the wireless internet is coming your way. Scarcely has the world got to grips with email and the internet on personal computers, than the next revolution has begun. Now it is the hand-held terminal, which is being targeted as the new way to send and access data across the internet. A starting point is the mobile phone, already in widespread use, but new devices are emerging fast.

And the airline industry is expected to be among the first to be affected by this revolution, as key areas such as customer services and distribution are transformed.

Within the next three years, half of all web-capable units sold worldwide will be non-PC devices, according to market research consultancy International Data Corporation (IDC). It forecasts that by 2003 there will indeed be some 600 million PCs in use around the world. But they will share the internet with 300 million intelligent assistants, 2 billion electronic devices - such as mobile phones, pagers and set top boxes - 150 million vehicles and 5 billion everyday domestic appliances such as vending machines, or refrigerators.

The simple addition of a basic computer to a washing machine could, for example, enable the downloading of a new washing programme from the internet or a quick maintenance check with the manufacturer's service computer to identify a fault.

The technology for a mobile or wireless internet is already under trial and should be ready by year end. The airline industry is seen as a pilot area. The business traveller's need for fast, mobile communications, has led consortiums like IBM, Sabre and Nokia to concentrate on providing premium passengers with interactive flight information via internet-enabled mobile phones. Using a technology known as the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) passengers can be informed of flight delays and cancellations , from a mobile handset. They can even make and change bookings. The only limitation, says IBM, is the size of the screens and the amount of data that can be posted.

As with any new technology, there is intense rivalry over who will set the industry standard. The WAP, being perfected by IBM, would define an open industry standard for transcoding the internet's HTML language into a highly condensed form of Wireless Markup Language that can be sent to any mobile phone. "We are not using a proprietary technology. Using a set of standards like WAP you could access the content without the company wondering about what device you are using," says Mark Bregman, general manager pervasive computing at IBM. In contrast rival Microsoft has a different approach whereby if their software is loaded onto a device, it would use their server, says Bregman.

Passenger trials

Meanwhile, the Amadeus global distribution system (GDS) has launched a similar set of trials with Erikson. Since February, some 30 SAS passengers have been equipped with Erikson mobile handsets, enabling them to book travel in the Amadeus system via a personal organiser or small handheld PC. There is no wire or cable involved: an infrared connection is established between the mobile phone and the other device which is simply placed next to it. This gives the passengers the benefit of a larger screen. "As soon as mobile phones are ready we will be able to use any of those that are coming up," says Christian Apigzsch, manager of new distribution developments at Amadeus.

Sabre's Peter Stevens, managing director marketing and business planning, agrees that different devices will be needed to access data. "The cellphone is good for making small changes, not for long itineraries," he says.

In a separate trial, SAS is also sending some 300 passengers flight traffic information through text messages sent directly to their mobile phones by computer. To benefit from the service, passengers need only to have a phone working on the existing GSMnetwork - already standard in Europe - and capable of receiving Short Message Service (SMS) information.Other carriers have tested similar SMS services. Swissair, for example, provided SMS information on flight delays to all its passengers during the recent disruption caused by the changes in European air space. However, this is not interactive nor does it give internet access, so applications are limited.

In contrast, the spread of internet-enabled or 'media' mobile phones is about to take off, particularly once the GSM mobile phone network - the standard in Europe - is established in the US and worldwide by the end of 1999. Nokia says that more than 160 million mobile phones were sold worldwide in 1998 and that the market is growing at a rate of over 25% a year. By 2005 there will be over a billion cellular phone users in the world and in 2000 some 10-15% of all the mobile phones in use will be media phones, says the company.

With those kind of figures companies like IBM were unlikely to turn a blind eye to the potential of pervasive computing. IBM's Bregman says that pervasive computing is based on mobility and that business travellers have the most urgent need for this type of interactive information. "These customers have a high need for information to support their travel requirements. We see them as one of the early [target] areas," he explains. While there are trials going on in other areas, such as personal banking in Japan using mobile personal digital assistants, the Nokia-Sabre partnership is the first example of a trial using WAP, believes Bregman.

The applications to airline travel could extend way beyond a simple ability to make or change flight bookings and respond to information on delays and cancellations. Once pervasive computing truly pervades air travel, the sealed-off nature of the aircraft cabin will become a feature of the past. In the next 12 months, passengers should be able to access their email and other electronic services while on board aircraft, "one of the only places in the world where they are not connected," says Bregman.

The airlines remain hazy over possible charges for these services and say it is far too early in the trial stage for a definite strategy. Sabre, meanwhile, merely sees the provision of a mobile access mode as a means to boost the number of transactions and its booking revenue.

Nor are travel agents necessarily going to be out of the picture. Abacus, Asia-Pacific's largest GDS, was already giving travel agents the ability to access its travel agent booking service AbacusWhiz Net via a laptop or notebook. Now the same devices can be used by travel agents in combination with a GSM mobile phone. Sabre also says its WAP service will encompass travel agents.

There is no doubt that the wireless internet will soon pervade every aspect of airline travel as well as our everyday lives. At the airport Bregman foresees roaming airline officials with small handheld devices giving them realtime access to information on delays and scheduled take-off times. "There will be a much higher level of customer service," he believes.

Aircraft maintenance will also move to a new level of sophistication with the ability to download maintenance information as required, removing the need to store massive product manuals. Continuous monitoring diagnostics and even remote service will also become possible as manufacturers receive and analyse realtime monitoring data from aircraft.

On the distribution side, ticketless travel could take on a new meaning. Using a smartcard slotted into an internet-enabled mobile phone, a passenger should be able to download an electronic ticket. The smartcard, containing all the necessary information, will then be used to check in and access aircraft. Contactless cards, the next stage in smartcard technology, are just around the corner.

Airlines should already be planning the investments needed to reap the full benefits of the mobile internet. The key to this will to devise an overall strategy for communicating with their customers which fully incorporates the new and existing technologies.

Source: Airline Business