Wireless hopes fizzle

As soon as his flight lands, Addison Schonland powers up his wireless personal digital assistant. When his Samsung SPH-I300 finds a signal, it automatically downloads information from his airline’s Web site, alerting him to any flight delays and giving him his gate numbers.

“If I’m making a tight connection, it saves me maybe five minutes – five important minutes,” the Washington consultant says.

But if he wants to rebook a flight or catch up on the news, Schonland doesn’t turn to his PDA. He calls a travel agent or buys a newspaper. “It’s much faster and easier. I really don’t have the time to surf the Internet on a slow wireless connection,” he says.

In the late 1990s, airlines and travel agencies promised the world to wireless users. They rolled out ambitious services that offered not only weather, news and flight information, but the ability to book flights, hotel rooms and rental cars online.

But the new applications didn’t catch on, and airlines either quietly removed the services from their Web sites or simplified them.

One of the boldest wireless experiments, the business travel Web site Biztravel.com, shut down.

“The travel industry looked at the cellphone as if it was an Internet-enabled device,” says Ken Smith, the editor of m-Travel.com, a Web site about wireless travel. “But it isn’t. A 10-digit keypad doesn’t replace a full-size computer keyboard. It’s easier to book an airline ticket by making a call.”

“The wireless revolution never happened for business travelers,” says Lorraine Sileo, an analyst for PhoCusWright, a travel consulting company in Sherman, Conn. “At one point in the late 1990s, people were saying that we were going to be able to check in to our flights using a wireless device or that our cellphones would double as a room key. But that was a little too optimistic.”

Wireless Internet usage is growing slowly. Of the 19.1 million Internet users in the USA who also own handheld computing devices, 5 million use them to access the Web, according to a recent survey by comScore Media Metrix. About 11% of mobile-phone users, or about 5.8 million people, log onto the Internet wirelessly, they estimate.

Among business travelers, the forecast for wireless Internet usage is upbeat. International Data Corp. estimates that there will be 3.4 million wireless business Internet subscribers by the end of this year and 45 million by 2007. But e-mail, not travel or information services, will fuel the growth, it says.

Travelers don’t want to learn how to use a small keyboard or a finicky stylus and pad to get something that’s easier to achieve with a phone call. But if they can get information without much legwork – or technological know-how – they’re likelier to subscribe, says Ken Dulaney, a mobile computing analyst at Gartner in Stamford, Conn.

In Japan, Disney offers wireless services that have been embraced by users. The company’s 2-year-old programs, which offer Disney-themed ring tones, screen savers, a variety of games and personalized e-mail, had 3 million Japanese subscribers last year, according to spokeswoman Kim Kerscher.

“We’ve been watching the market for wireless evolve in the United States,” she says. But so far, when it comes to business travel, there’s little interest beyond headlines delivered to wireless subscribers via Disney-owned ABCNews.com.

In the meantime, travel industry Web sites are making their products as simple as possible:

* United Airlines has EasyUpdate, which lets travelers receive flight information on a variety of devices. Passengers can choose what kind of data they want — from departures and delays to rebooking and upgrade confirmations — and determine when they want to get it.

* Travelocity.com backed away from a full-fledged wireless booking project and instead has My Messaging, a suite of services that notifies customers about flight delays and scheduling changes. Essentially a messaging service, it lets travelers receive e-mail on most handheld devices or cellphones.

* Pronto last month introduced a travel booking service that combines voice-activated technology with human operators. Pronto lets business travelers use their wireless with their voice. They can get driving directions, search for Internet airfares, and make last-minute changes to their itineraries without touching their cellphone keyboard.

The response to some of the scaled-down wireless services has been lukewarm. Travelocity has signed up more than 10,000 subscribers to the My Messaging service out of a total 30 million registered members, said Don Addington, the Web site’s head of air travel marketing. But, he says, Travelocity hasn’t promoted the service yet.

“The wireless buzz was way out of control a year ago,” he says. “There’s still no wireless service out there that’s got a decent amount of bandwidth at a reasonable price. I don’t think it will change by 2003.”

Bob Cowen, a Detroit software salesman, still doesn’t use his cellphone to download information. He says he worries about running up an expensive phone bill, and he doesn’t like the small keyboards that he sees other travelers using to enter data on their PDAs.

“I think of myself as a customer-in-waiting,” he says.

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