June 19, 2008

Business Travelers Lighten Up on Tech

By Roger Yu

Charles Emnett recently took a leap of technological faith -- he left his laptop at home on a business trip.

The health care consultant from Spring Hill, Fla., now uses his Treo smartphone to manage e-mail and calls, and handle basic document and spreadsheet work. He loads files that he needs on a flash drive that can be plugged into a PC at a client's office or the hotel business center.

"Five days a week on the road is a short week for me. That schedule provides a lot of motivation for me to pack efficiently," he says. "Giving up the laptop was a liberating experience. To be honest, I was a little hesitant to do it, but I really don't think that I would go back."

Even if they're not embracing such dramatic changes, other business travelers are expressing similar sentiments, as the new advances in mobile computing rapidly change their work habits. The industry's latest products aimed at the road warrior are being eagerly snapped up by savvy consumers who want to replicate the office experience while zipping through airports and rental car counters.

Major computer manufacturers, including Apple, Lenovo and Hewlett-Packard, have recently introduced ultrathin laptops, which are arguably the most competitive sector in the PC business. The snazziest smartphones, such as Apple's iPhone and the BlackBerry 8800, provide real-time corporate e-mail, full Internet browsing and office productivity software, while also working as a GPS navigation device and digital camera. Meanwhile, wireless cell networks' ability to handle streaming data have improved so dramatically in the last six months that many travelers are forgoing the often annoying task of sniffing for Wi-Fi signals.

"Everything's getting smaller, and everything's more powerful," says Norm Rose, who runs Travel Tech Consulting. "Everyone has a mobile device. And it's just the tip of what's happening. You're going to have a connection everywhere you go."

For business travelers, flexibility and multitasking are serious considerations, given the hassles of modern-day air travel and ceaseless demands by clients and bosses. It's not unusual for a traveler to surf the Internet on a smartphone to find a bar in an airport terminal, while a text message alerts him of flight delays. A sudden flight cancellation may require a traveler to quickly boot up her laptop, plug in her wireless network card and rebook on the airline's website -- while being put on hold by airline operators on the cellphone.

A few travelers have also started to participate in airlines' new experiment that uses bar codes e-mailed to mobile devices, which are then used as electronic boarding passes.

Equipment weight is also a major issue for road warriors. Checking luggage has become more burdensome as the lines at airport counters get longer and more airlines charge fees for checked bags. "Six pounds sucked up by a laptop is 6 pounds not available for you to bring. I don't think there's any business traveler who wouldn't relish leaving the laptop at home some of the time," says Henry Harteveldt of Forrester Research.

Much of the industry's initiatives to help boost productivity while lightening the load revolve around the following areas:

*Mobile technology. To be sure, most business travelers are still deeply attached to their laptops, given the physical limitations of smartphones.

Leslie Fiering of research firm Gartner says smartphones are mostly for "content consumption and not for content creation."

Any device that has the size of a BlackBerry but with all the functions of a notebook remains the technology industry's "holy grail," she says.

But Darrel DesRochers, a marketing executive and frequent traveler from Vancouver, Wash., has noticed a subtle shift in his computing habits while on the road. He now rarely turns on his laptop when not working directly with clients, and he no longer scrambles for an ethernet connection between flights or hotel. Instead, he flips on his BlackBerry to keep in touch with the office, check in for flights, e-mail his colleagues and Google for information. "The biggest change I've experienced is the minimization of the laptop's importance," he says. "This whole week, I don't think I turned on my laptop once at the hotel."

Ken Anderson, an anthropologist who studies technology-consumption behavior for Intel, says DesRochers' experience is becoming more common. Travelers who have short layovers are increasingly packing the laptop in their suitcases. Two colleagues traveling together to a conference for a week might agree to share a laptop and carry just a flash drive to store data.

Of course, smartphone makers are also doing their part to shift business travelers toward their products. Apple's much-hyped iPhone made the big leap for the industry when it introduced screens that allow users to enlarge Internet browser images and turn them sideways with simple flicks of the fingers.

Apple has also been convincing travelers that full Internet browsing -- as opposed to being limited to text-only sites -- is now possible on smartphones, a development that became possible only within the past couple of years. Business travelers' increasing reliance on their smartphones will largely depend on the ability to provide seamless Internet browsing, Travel Tech's Rose says. He anticipates there will be "a flood of iPhone-like products in the next 18 to 24 months."

Smartphones with embedded GPS chips, also a relatively new phenomenon, have caught on quickly with business travelers, says Jeff McDowell, a vice president of BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion.

Wade Cauthen, a sales manager from Alpharetta, Ga., says he's generally wary of GPS directions. But he likes packing lightly, and the new GPS program in his smartphone "beats lugging around an extra piece of equipment."

So far, most travelers use smartphone GPS only to get turn-by-turn directions. But the industry envisions adding more "location-based services," such as nearby recommendations of restaurants or being able to spot your Facebook buddies and clients who are in your area.

*Emergence of wireless data networks. Daniel Adam, a technology executive in Houston, says he now relies less on Wi-Fi hot spots because he's accessing the Internet on his laptop and smartphones more through his AT&T cell network.

It keeps him connected to the Internet whenever he wants since he doesn't have to be in Wi-Fi hot spots. Adam says he gets DSL-like speeds in most cities and prefers the service even when there's free Wi-Fi at hotels, which can be "painfully slow."

"This was the best move and saves me and my clients money," he says. "I was able to drop my T-Mobile hot-spot account."

Apple's latest iPhone has a function that enables customers to surf the Web via AT&T's data network at speeds similar to Wi-Fi, the company says. Other smartphones, such as BlackBerry and Treo, can also access the Web in similar ways.

Aware of business travelers' increasing desire to be free from hot spots, cellphone carriers are beefing up their data cell networks. The industry is also developing a technology called WiMax, which is like one hot spot spread over a large area or even an entire city, says Sam Dusi, a marketing executive of computer maker Lenovo.

*Ultralight computing. Competition for sub-notebooks -- 10.6-inch to 13.3-inch screen sizes and weighing less than 4 pounds -- remains robust as road warriors look to shed their traveling weight. Several new models introduced in the last six months -- including HP Voodoo Envy, Apple's MacBook Air and Lenovo ThinkPad X300 -- target people like Tony Harrison, a public safety trainer from Oklahoma City.

Harrison travels about 40 times a year and considers weight to be more important than processing speed when selecting a laptop. He settled on a Sony model that weighs less than 3 pounds and has an 11-inch screen.

Of course, the technology industry has always aimed for lighter, faster products. But several breakthroughs in the past couple of years -- faster chips, improved LED display, thinner batteries and more reliable data storage drives -- are finally letting manufacturers come up with light laptops that don't ask customers to sacrifice on key functions, Lenovo's Dusi says.

Airlines' push to fly lighter by enforcing size limits on carry-ons and charging fees for checking bags has also helped drive consumer demand.

Some executives are also buying ultralight laptops used just for business trips, while they work with heavier machines docked at work. "As the price of miniaturization comes down, more people are looking for a secondary device. And we'll continue to see that," says Robert Baker, HP's marketing manager of notebooks.

The laptop industry is also tackling one of the most common complaints among business travelers: It takes too long for PC laptops to turn on when they simply want to open an e-mail to confirm a flight schedule or retrieve a client's address.

Voodoo Envy, introduced earlier this month, uses a Linux-based operating system to turn on the most popular applications, such as e-mail and Web browser, within a few seconds, while the rest of the Windows-based applications boot up in the background.

Meanwhile, the push to drive the laptop size even smaller continues, with ongoing developments in handheld devices with screens that are 7 inches or less. If these "mini-notebooks" ever achieve their designers' goals -- turn on instantly, surf the Internet through wireless networks and run popular productivity software -- even more business travelers could be looking to ditch their heavy laptops, at least on short trips.

Emnett, who has abandoned his laptop, is tempted by the notion. "I would consider one of those. I've gotten pretty good results with the Treo, but a 9-inch screen would be really nice." (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>