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1 January, 2010

Good morning

Phew.  What a crazy final week of the last year of the first decade of the twenty first century.  Our shared anticipation of a quiet lazy relaxing week was thrown into disarray by the crotch bomber and the TSA antics that followed.

Although the idiotic new rules for controlling passengers in-flight were quickly (but quietly) quashed, the only slightly more sensible heightened security for passing through airports has unsurprisingly been extended and currently continues in place, as do the various airline-imposed restrictions on cabin baggage.

The circumstances which allowed the crotch-bomber and his bomb onto the plane show an unfortunate series of missed opportunities and failures to respond to intelligence obtained, as well as proving (should anyone have doubted) how ineffective airport security is and probably always will be in defending flights again crotch bombers and their skillfully concealed bombs.

There's been a lot of rushes to judgment and a lot of calls for action already.  Much of this, although doubtless well meaning, is misdirected and overlooks the neediest parts of the total security process while concentrating on the showiest parts.

Needless to say, I've a few thoughts of my own, and needless to say, they're somewhat different from mainstream thought.  And so, can you guess what is being offered to you as :

This Week's Feature Column :  Lessons from the Multiple Security Failures on NW253 :  Airport security screening didn't fail us when it failed to detect the crotch-bomber's bomb, because it was never capable of finding such objects in the first place.  But read this article to see what did fail, to see which suggested solutions probably won't work, and to get the bottom line story on what we should be doing to protect ourselves on future flights.

One different perspective on this topic.  The last week saw not only the failed crotch-bomber, but also the 737 that overshot the runway in Jamaica and which broke into three pieces.  It too could have as easily resulted in the deaths of everyone on board, and unlike the crotch-bomber, who managed to do nothing more than burn the side of the plane a bit, the 737 was completely written off.

But whereas we had the TSA rush out poorly thought out panicked new 'security' measures within hours of the crotch-bomber, there has yet to be any response at all to the 737 crash.

Equally to the point, plane crashes upon landing have happened more regularly in the past, and can be expected more regularly in the future than crotch-bombings (or any other sort of airplane bombing).  Our risk of death/injury is vastly greater from a bad landing than from a bad person.  But society's focus is tilted way too far towards the concept of terrorism while blithely accepting risk levels in other parts of the total flight process that dwarf the minimal risk associated with terrorism.

By the way, did anyone else catch reference to the fact that both crotch-bomber Mutallab and Ft Hood army gunman Nidal Malik Hasan were associates of and interacted with the gentleman politely referred to as a 'radical cleric' (and we're not talking Church of England here, folks), Anwar Al-Awlaki?

Is it just me or is the terrorist issue being massively downplayed with the Ft Hood shootings?

With three special newsletters sent out this week already, and the holiday week in general, this will be a short newsletter.  And with all the focus on air travel in the special newsletters this week, I'm limiting this newsletter to non-air related issues.

Amtrak, eat your heart out :  China has unveiled what it says is the world's fastest rail link, a train connecting the cities of Guangzhou and Wuhan, with trains maintaining an average speed of 217 mph. The high-speed train reduces the 670 mile journey to three hours - more than seven and a half hours less than the previous travel time.

Building the 670 mile high speed rail line took only four years.  Work began in 2005 as part of plans to expand a high-speed network aimed at eventually linking the business hub of Guangzhou with Beijing.  Test runs for the service began earlier in December and the link officially went into service last Saturday.

Who wouldn't choose a train over a plane if one could travel 670 miles in three hours - about the same amount of time we have to allow for checking in at one airport and collecting our bags at the other airport alone.

New transport of a different and slower sort is to be seen in London, which is to get new double decker buses in time for their Olympics in 2012.

These buses will echo the design of the famous 'Routemaster' buses that dated back to the 1950s - in particular the open rear platform which allowed commuters to hop on and off the bus any time it was stopped, not just at official bus stops.

Rather than prognosticate about the uncertain future of travel in the year that follows, I thought I'd share some thoughts about 2010 and the more certain evolution of some of the more exciting developments in consumer electronics, all of which will impact on our lives as travelers.

This promises to be another very exciting year for cell phones and hand held mobile computing devices in general.  Things to look for include a color screen equipped eBook reader, the Apple 'Tablet', a new iPhone and a Google phone.

Several different companies are close to marketing color screen based eBook readers (and of course, if you're reading an eBook on a laptop, netbook or cell phone, you're already using a color screen anyway).  Although I've continued to argue against the validity of a dedicated eBook reader, advocating instead that you read books on your phone or Netbook, few people have actually done what I've done - truly sat down with their iPhone and read a long book from cover to cover.

I read Dan Brown's latest mega-novel, The Lost Symbol, in a single nonstop session on my iPhone, and found it a perfectly acceptable and even good experience.  I roll my eyes every time someone who has not done this tries to persuade me that it couldn't possibly be convenient or comfortable - I am reminded of how scientists managed to 'prove' that a bee couldn't possibly fly.  So too can you 'prove' that reading a book on an iPhone is an awkward inconvenient experience, but whatever you prove fails to reflect the reality of actually reading a book.  Try it before you knock it.

Anyway, for better or worse, it is true that intuitively there's a lot of appeal to having a dedicated eBook reader, and the massive marketing push given to its Kindle reader by Amazon seems to have succeeded in making the concept of eBooks a viable and ongoing concept, and at the same time, seems to be giving validity to the concept of dedicated eBook readers too.  There is a growing number of other companies also releasing eBook readers, and while currently they are all primarily based on the same 'E-Ink' technology (a very low powered unlit low contrast black and white only screen that allows for extended reading and low battery consumption) there are increasingly viable new screens appearing that offer brighter and color displays.

The ability to add color - both to text and to pictures - will open up an entire new level of eBook titles.  Currently eBooks have perforce been primarily limited to simple fictional novels and some non-fiction titles that are heavy on text and light on graphics or images.  But once color becomes viable, look for - well, for example, travel guide books - to become much more prevalent, and the wonderful removal of the cost restrictions of publishing a print book in full color will allow for massive new creativity in book design and enormous enhancements in presentation and imagery.

The Apple Tablet is a much talked about device that can be thought of as something like a larger screen equipped iPhone/iPod Touch (reputedly it will have a 10" screen, and probably more computing power and capabilities than the iPhone) which will provide a new device to bridge the current awkward gap between cell phones with tiny screens and keyboards, and full sized desktop computers.

Little is known for sure about this device, but expectations (and hype) are/is high.  It may be called the iSlate, and may be announced in late January.  One thing you can be certain of though is that reading eBooks on the 10" Tablet screen will be a further marginalization of the need for a dedicated eBook reader.  It should be released some time in the first quarter this year, however, so stay tuned for further details.

Tablets in general are becoming a hot new product category - the devices had suffered for years as a result of Microsoft's unpopular attempts at creating tablet type devices, but newer devices that are smaller, lighter, and which use touch screens that can accept multiple touch inputs (like iPhones) rather than requiring styluses (styli?) are promising to make tablets more user friendly than previous models, and may supplant/replace netbooks as a midway step between phones and laptops.

It seems close to certain that Apple will also continue its regular annual releases of new iPhone models, with a new iPhone to appear in about July (Apple also has an annual release schedule for iPods, a bit later in each year), and with the massive advances in Google Android powered phones, the iPhone's lead over competing phones has substantially slipped.

This year Apple's new version iPhone might have to be somewhat adjusted to reflect the reality of the new Tablet product - in other words, Apple won't want to create too much product clash and overlap between its Tablet and iPhone. At the very least, hope for a slightly larger and higher resolution screen, maybe a little more battery life, and more storage, plus some new enhancements/tweaks to the operating system capabilities.

But the first of these events to occur is scheduled for next week - Google's announcement of its own phone.  Don't confuse what the term 'Google's own phone' actually means, however.

Google released its mobile phone operating system - Android - back in 2008.  This is an open architecture free operating system that any phone manufacturer could use, with Google primarily acting as a central coordinating point for the development and management of the OS itself.  The first Android phone, called the G1, made by the Taiwanese company HTC that makes many phones under different names but seldom under its own name, and sold by T-Mobile vaguely either as the 'T-Mobile G1' or just as the 'G1', has now been joined by many other phones, made by many other manufacturers, and available through most wireless companies.

The original G1 is now massively showing its age, and no longer is 'state of the art' in any respect.  But the latest Android based phones such as the Motorola Droid (available through Verizon) are very impressive and have closed a lot of the lead which the iPhone has on the rest of the market.

The latter part of 2009 had an increasing level of rumor about Google now developing its own phone hardware, to sell under its own name, and of course using its Android OS.  On the face of it, this seemed like a strange move, and one which would surely alienate the broad range of other phone hardware manufacturers, who would suddenly find that instead of having Google alongside them as a supportive partner and supplier of a high quality and free OS, they now had Google ranged against them, selling its own branded hardware.

These considerations remain valid, but it seems Google is ignoring them (another of the several examples of Google starting to suffer from hubris in the marketplace, perhaps?) and it seems that the Google phone - now named the Nexus One - will be announced at a release event on Wednesday 5 January.

Interestingly, the Google phone isn't actually made by Google.  Instead it is being made for them by HTC, and will initially be sold through T-Mobile (reportedly for $180 with a two year contract or $530 with no contract, and with monthly service plans starting at $70/month).

So how is it actually a Google phone at all, if the hardware is made by HTC, and the phone itself sold by T-Mobile?  Everyone assumed that the G1 phone was so named with the G implying Google.  In what way is Google advantaging itself by now more prominently branding this new phone?

The answers to these questions are obscure.  But what does seem probable, at this stage, is that the phone will be at least as good and possibly better than the current 'King of the Hill' of Android based phones, Motorola's Droid.  One can only guess at how Motorola feels at having its pre-eminence upstaged by its software/development partner, and one has to wonder if this won't encourage some hardware manufacturers to return back to what is essentially the only other operating system game in town, Microsoft's lackluster and increasingly irrelevant Windows Mobile OS.

But after almost 15 years of development into an operating system that has never succeeded in capturing much market excitement or attention, one wonders if it is possible for Microsoft to now improve their game, to speed up their development cycle and to create an OS that sparkles and excites.  It was, after all, in large part the lack of appeal of Windows Mobile and its antecedents that encouraged first Apple and secondly Google to develop much better operating systems and user interfaces.

However, for us as the users of phones and other mobile gadgets, one thing is clear.  There will be lots of great things coming our way in 2010.

If you're not yet an iPhone convert, then the Google Nexus One could become the phone for you - I'll let you know more about this, possibly even next week.  And if you are an iPhone user, look for exciting new things with the Table and/or the next generation of iPhones in June/July, then decide if you want to stay with the iPhone architecture or move across to whatever the latest/greatest Android phone might then be.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  As you are hopefully aware, it is becoming increasingly important that the name on your flight reservation is exactly the same as the name on your Photo ID.  No longer will security screeners necessarily show any common sense when Bob Jones presents a driver's license in the name of Robert Jones.  This is, of course, for our added protection (hmmm).

Two sisters recently suffered from this new policy and ended up not being allowed on their flight because their last name was too long for the airline computer reservation system.  Their last name, Moravec-Flores, was truncated as Moravec-F in their booking, and this meant they were not allowed to board the plane.  More details here.

Do you think they felt safer?

Here's a teaser/trailer for a new documentary/movie about air security scheduled to be released next year.

Lastly this week, I've often wondered what impact modern telecommunications has on business travel.  Here's an interesting article that says in Britain British Telecom estimates it cut out more than 700,000 face to face meetings (and 1.4 million journeys) due to people using conferencing services instead.  This was in 2008.

Oh, the article also reports that the most popular place to join a conference call was from one's bedroom, followed by the bathroom.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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