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9 April, 2010

Good morning

And hello today from Anaheim, where my daughter Anna and I are meeting with the Mouse.  Well, not on a one-to-one basis, more like a one-to-one hundred thousand basis.

My iPad eventually arrived on Saturday afternoon, after I was growing increasingly anxious as to it ever turning up or not.  Since then I spent a concentrated and almost nonstop 48 hours playing working with it, and trying to come up with some cohesive thoughts as to if I liked it or not, what I'd use it for, and if I could recommend it on to you.

I like it - in part.  And am massively frustrated by it in other parts.  In some respects it is brilliantly good, but it is still crippled by the stranglehold that Apple and its awful iTunes software has on it.  So - should you buy one?

Actually, the answer to this question is almost independent of whether it is good or not, there are other reasons that make it easy to answer.  And the answer is you should almost certainly not buy an iPad - well, not unless you have a clear and present need for it (and in truth I don't think any of the 300,000 of us who bought one on its first day on sale do indeed have any yet identified definite need for it at all).

I suggest you not buy an iPad - yet -  not to be elitist or snobbish, but because - well, to find out why, perhaps you should click over to the two pages of analysis I wrote on the topic :

This Week's Feature Column :  Why You Should Wait Before Buying an iPad :  Flawed diamond or crown jewel?  Whichever it is, the iPad has a lot to like about it, but as the first of what promises to be a deluge of new tablet devices, its current benefit of being first to market will soon become a disadvantage as newer and better devices are released in the next few months.

One of the things that surprised me the most about the iPad is how heavy it is.  My most hoped for use of the device was going to be lying in bed, lazily browsing the internet or reading/sending emails.  But it is both heavy and slippery.  Besides which, I don't have enough hands - what's the point of a larger keyboard if you can only type on it with one hand, while holding the device with your other hand?

The weight issue truly is a drawback.  Yes, the unit only weighs 1.5 lbs.  But try holding this for an extended period and you too will come to appreciate that it isn't exactly a feather in your hands.  The weight interferes with the 'transparency' of the unit - it becomes uncomfortable and intrudes on your user experience.  Transparency was one of the most touted benefits of the Kindle eBook reader - you forgot about the device as such and became drawn into the reading experience.  With the iPad, you can never become unaware of the device itself, and depending on how you are positioned, it can become tiring and awkward to hold it for any lengthy period.

I realized another thing as I was taking both my iPhone and my iPad up to bed the other night.  How unfortunate that it can't do double duty as a regular phone, too.  Rather than replacing/upgrading/enhancing other pieces of gear I already have, it seems the iPad is more an additional gadget to carry with one.  At the most, it might replace my Kindle, but the iPad is much bigger and much heavier than the Kindle, so I'm not saving either weight or space in my carryon.

Talking about carryon, a related problem is how you carry the thing.  It is appreciably large in size - the 3/4" or more bezel around the screen adds to its size (but is necessary so you have somewhere/something to hold onto - obviously you can't hold it by the touch screen or else the mere act of holding it would confuse the touch screen).  You surely can't simply put it in your pocket, like you would a phone.  On the other hand, it is too small to put into a laptop type computer carry bag.

I first confronted this problem the day after getting the unit - I agreed to meet a friend for lunch and show them the iPad.  Every bag I had was either too big or too small, but I didn't want to just self-consciously carry it in my hand.

I hunted through Amazon the next day and ordered what seemed like a good solution, an 'Urban Explorer Canvas Shoulder Bag' (with an eye to traveling internationally, I prefer to use discreet low-cost looking products rather than gaudy expensive items that shout 'I'm a wealthy American tourist, steal my bag' to the local lowlife).  It only cost about $16, but yet again, I learned my lesson - you get what you pay for.  Although it had a suitably sized main compartment, it had no other compartments, and if I was going to use it for a travel bag, I'd want separators to protect the iPad, my Kindle (hmmm - will I really travel with both - I'll have to think about that, especially now that I have a Kindle app and all my Kindle books on the iPad), noise cancelling headphones, iPod (another question mark - do I need an iPod too because the iPad has an iPod built in to it), a camera, wallet, travel documents, a book or two (travel guides or whatever), a bar of chocolate (!) and whatever else.

I might have found a good solution, but it is not yet available.  There is of course a desperate rush to market by many accessory providers, and for sure, suppliers of protective cases and carry bags are no exception.  By happy chance, one of the better bag suppliers is actually based here in Seattle, and amazingly, they make at least some of their products locally rather than shipping them in from Asia.  The company is Tom Bihn, and I've commented favorably on their products before.  They have what seems to be an excellent iPad bag; alas, it won't be available until mid June.  I'd almost forgotten what it feels like to buy American (the iPad is made in China).

But you're not going to rush out and buy an iPad today, are you?  Not after reading this week's feature article.

I'd promised last week to release a comprehensive review of how to share an internet connection between multiple devices, particularly when you're in a hotel that wants to charge you for each and every different device you have.

Many of us travel with at least one laptop and one cell phone, each wanting access to the internet, and at present I count a ridiculous five devices around me in my Anaheim hotel (laptop, netbook, iPad, iPhone and Blackberry).

My comprehensive review has, as you might expect, become exactly that.  Indeed, it spans four pages and 5500 words, but is worth reading if you too sometimes find yourself wanting to share a single internet feed among multiple devices.

This year's Christmas Cruise is almost ready to present to you.  It will be (drumroll please) on a different part of Europe's river system.  After I think six years in a row cruising along the Danube between Budapest and Nuremberg, this year we'll go somewhere different - we'll cruise between Amsterdam and Basel, through Germany and France, primarily along the Rhine river.  There'll be Christmas markets aplenty, and I hope to have some interesting pre and/or post tour extensions to enrichen the experience still further.

First, I have a question for you.  This tour can either start with us leaving the US on Thursday 25 November - ie, Thanksgiving Day, or could have us leaving a few days after Thanksgiving.  Which would you prefer?  If it makes a difference to you one way or the other (either on the plus side - leaving on Thanksgiving Day might make it easier to get time off work and the cruise is $100 cheaper, or on the minus side - you don't want to miss your traditional family get-together) please let me know your preferences.

So, please keep in mind that the week or two immediately after Thanksgiving is when the cruise/tour will take place; I'll get firm dates and more details for you next week.

Dinosaur watching :  In a surprise move, Spirit Airlines has now started charging for carry-on bags (other than small bags less than 16" x 14" x 12") as well as still charging for checked bags.  The fee for a carry-on bag will be $30, or $45 if you try and sneak it on the plane, unpaid, and they catch you.  And even though you're now paying good money, Spirit say that you can only pay to bring one bag onto the plane.

Spirit says the reason for this is to make more money to encourage passengers to check their bags (paying checked bag fees so they make more money) so that planes will be loaded and unloaded faster so that Spirit can turn them around with less time on the ground and make more money.

Spirit said that at the same time it also reduced its lowest fares by an average of $40, so that would offset the extra cost of a $60 roundtrip carry-on bag fee.  So they're not actually making any more money at all.

But you'll note they said they reduced their lowest fares.  They didn't say they reduced all their fares.  I've no problem with airlines making money, but why are the airlines themselves so bashful at admitting that is why they add fees?

More details on their website.

Talking about trying to make more money, the latest merger rumor involves former wanna-be pals, United and US Airways, who are apparently keen to try again where they've previously failed.

But would a merged airline be any more profitable?  Quite likely no.  In this part of my not yet complete series on the death of airline competition - an article appropriately titled 'Bigger Airlines are Not Better', I plot airline operating costs against airline size.  The bigger the airline, the higher their operating costs - quite the opposite of the vague 'economy of scale' rationalization of airline mergers that we're treated to. 

It seems that due to the nature of the airline business, there are few opportunities for economy of scale - it costs about as much to fly a plane between Los Angeles and Chicago, whether you have only one plane and one flight a day, or a fleet of 1,000 planes and 50 flights between LAX and ORD each day.  The only way a bigger merged airline would save money would be if it would stop operating (say) 20 737s on a medium haul route and replace it with 7 A380s.  But due to airlines seeking to have the maximum number of flights, this is never likely to happen - the trend has been towards smaller planes flying more frequently.

The best way for an airline to make money is to become more internally efficient.  To reduce wasteful practices, and to have fewer staff working harder, and for less money.  An example of an airline that appreciates this is Japan Airlines.  First they refused offers to have Delta or American Airlines buy into their company.  And now they are slashing their staff, with a plan to lay off one third of its workforce during the next twelve months.  Wow.  They're also cutting unprofitable routes and selling off old planes.

Sorry - there's not a lot of airline news featured this week.  It would be amusing if it weren't also frustrating, but notwithstanding offering you four pages of information this week all about connecting to the internet in hotels, I'm, ahem, having internet problems at the Anaheim hotel I'm staying at.

Unfortunately, the material offered to you is primarily predicated on having a reliable hotel internet connection to start with, and that's the challenge I'm having (it has been down three times in the last hour, and with it taking 30 minutes to 'restart the mesh' (whatever that means) it is all getting a bit much for me.  I plan to be happily back at home next week and normally productive.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  The crotch bomber managed to smuggle his bomb onto the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit at Christmas last year because he wasn't on any watch lists.  In response, the US Government said that all people from a bunch of countries would be given secondary inspection prior to being allowed on flights to the US.

That revised policy would have increased the odds of the crotch bomber being caught because he'd have had a follow up search when going through security.

The policy has now been revised again.  The new improved revision of the improved revision to the earlier flawed policy?  Ummm - only people on the watch list will be given secondary inspection once more.  Which means, is this 'new' system had been in place back in December, the crotch bomber would have again been waved through security with no special screening.

So how have we learned our lesson and become safer?

Perhaps this is one part of our President's renaming the war on terror. I'm not quite sure what it is to be called now (perhaps 'the slight disagreement with well intentioned activists'), but the phrase 'Islamic radicalism' and others like it is no longer to be used, presumably for fear of upsetting radical Islamics.  Details here.

Meanwhile, one of the more radical Islamics out there, Iran's President Ahmadinejad, pours scorn on Obama as an 'amateur', while continuing his nuclear weapons development completely unimpeded.  Are you feeling safer yet?

Here's a great soundbite.  More air marshals have been themselves arrested than they have themselves arrested people.  The Federal Air Marshal service is costing the country $200 million per person they arrest - and as far as I can ascertain, they have never 'saved' a plane or battled with a terrorist on board a flight or even arrested a terrorist.

Good value for money?  Do we even need them at all - why not just arm all pilots, and allow the flight attendants to take the martial arts classes they're so keen to take.  Details here.

There was a recent threat by a passenger to crash a Qantas flight en route from Sydney to Singapore which didn't require federal air marshals.  On-board flight attendants were able to control the man with no problems, and restrained him to his seat with both his arms and legs tied to the seat for the rest of the flight.

But would this have prevented the passenger from carrying out his threat?  You see, he threatened to crash the plane using nothing more than the power of his mind.

The plane landed safely.

We've all fallen asleep on a plane from time to time, and maybe even slept through its landing.  But how is it possible to remain asleep as the plane empties, and to stay asleep, undisturbed, when the plane is then towed away from the gate?  That's what happened to this gentleman, who woke to find the plane in a hangar, some 90 minutes after landing.  Ooops.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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