NB: This is a viewpoint from Kevin O'Sullivan, lead engineer at SITA Lab.
At this year's Mobile Web Congress in Barcelona, exhibitors showcased everything from phone devices, components and backhaul infrastructure to payments, apps and accessories but I want to pick up on a few trends highlighted during the show that will impact the travel industry.
Near Field Communication (NFC)
I was at MWC demonstrating SITA Lab’s research on NFC for airlines and airports which is a good place to start. This year, GSMA, which organises the congress, was promoting the 'NFC Experience'. I submerged myself in it and found that it is ready to go for some use cases, but not others.
The simplest usage of NFC is to read smart tags embedded in posters, luggage labels or other devices. A lot more devices now have NFC and Nokia and Sony showed off pairing phone to speakers or docking stations. While you still need to have your phone switched on and unlocked, tapping to trigger an application on your phone is much more simple and satisfying than trying to photograph a QR code.
The real benefits of NFC for travel – ‘tap and go’ access throughout an airport, without pre-launching an app on your phone, or even having your phone on is still complicated (see what I wrote here for more details). There is not yet a generalized solution that works out of the box for the travel industry.
SITA Lab continues to focus on the standards and services needed to enable deployment. Much progress is being made, but 2013 will not see widespread adoption of NFC in travel.
Fitter, stronger, more productive – so what?
New devices continue to be thinner, lighter, faster, brighter and bigger. In the past, these feats of engineering would have brought gasps of astonishment and appreciation. No longer, it seems we have become jaded by all the specs. These days, it is all about the apps, interoperability and user experience.
However, it’s worth pausing to consider just how much power we pack into our phones – The Ascend P2 has a 1.5GHz quad-core processor, 1GB memory and 13MP camera. In comparison, a 2012 Macbook Air has a 1.7GHz dual-core processor. We may have become blasé about the specs, but this computing power is an extraordinary enabler of change.
Machine to machine (M2M)
Aka Internet of Everything. This was big – machines communicating with each other to self-organize and machines communicating with us (through a phone/tablet) to instruct and influence. While all the showcase examples tended to solve first world problems (a connected wine bottle that messages a sommelier to recommend it) it is easy to imagine the many uses of M2M in the travel industry.
M2M enables a future where smart bag tags talk to aircraft, staff wearable devices collectively decide in real time where to allocate resources and infrastructure. At the airport wifi networks could direct staff to hotspots requiring attention and passengers to the quickest routes. Our phones could automatically manage a disruption event for us.
The next billion phone users
A big talking point was where the next billion phone users will come from. The answer of course is the emerging markets. Related to the needs of this market was a lot of hype around Firefox OS and Ubuntu OS, two new free operating systems aimed at mobiles and tablets. Nokia also launched phones at the lower end of the price spectrum. GSMA claims a strong correlation between internet usage and GDP growth – if true, this can only be a good thing for business and travel in these markets.
So what did I take away from MWC this year?
NFC is a technology that will seep into our everyday use almost unnoticed. There is work that we as an industry need to do, but NFC is too useful in too many ways for it not to be widely adopted.
In the developed world, much of the recent innovation can be classified as a long tail of incremental convenience. However, in emerging markets, it is a dramatically different story. Combine powerful cheap devices, with intelligent interoperability and a billion new users with new ideas and we’ll see another explosion of change to rival the last five years.
NB: This is a viewpoint from Kevin O'Sullivan, lead engineer at SITA Lab
NB2: Mobile globe apps image via Shutterstock.