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The Washington Post Magazine Online

Today's Topic: An Office at 35,000 Feet
with David Pescovitz

Monday, March 13, 2000
1 p.m. EST

David Pescovitz

A fast laptop, four hours with no telephone interruptions, hand-delivered dinner and nowhere else to go. What more could a frequent-flying business traveler want? Actually, if the goal is to set up a temple of productivity in the sky, there are quite a few things. Like software to make airborne online access cheaper and faster. Or maybe Sony MDR-NC10 Noise Canceling Headphones to reduce cabin noise.

David Pescovitz, who wrote the Working Away column that appeared in The Washington Post Magazine's Spring Travel Issue yesterday, is online to discuss high-tech ways to make business travel more productive--and more palatable.

San Francisco-based writer David Pescovitz is a contributing editor to Wired and the co-author of "Reality Check," based on his long-running futurist column in the magazine. He is also a contributing editor to I.D. Magazine, columnist for the Industry Standard, and writes frequently for Scientific American. Pescovitz has also written about technology, art, and culture for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Discovery Channel Online, New Scientist and MTV Online,

Pescovitz says "One of the biggest problems has always been the batteries in a laptop PC. Quite simply, they're known for calling it a day long before the day's work is done. And the older they are, the worse they get at retaining a charge. Loading up the laptop case with a few extra batteries is a solution, but can be a pricey and heavy one."

Here is a copy of today's transcript.


David Pescovitz: Hello everyone! Thanks for coming to chat with me. Are any of you on a plane right now participating? I doubt it. ; )

New York, NY: In order to make a phone call on a plane, the charges are enormous. Do you see a possibility that the airlines will charge the same type of enormous rates for internet use?

David Pescovitz: Already, GTE Airfone offers a discounted rate on data calls. They're much less expensive than voice calls. I think that the cost of data calls from planes will be less expensive than voice calls in the long run, primarily because data can be sent in bursts while voice must be transmitted and received in real time.

Annapolis, MD: What technological advances do you think we'll see for the airline industry in the future?

David Pescovitz: I think the amenities we see now in premium classes will trickle down into coach class--such as personal video/entertainment screens, laptop chargers (already happening).... More leg room? Probably not. That would be more of a prescription than a prediction.

Newport, RI: In the future, do you think airlines will provide laptops on flights as they do phones?

David Pescovitz: I think that will take some time.. You'll probably first see computer terminals embedded into personal entertainment systems like those in premium classes on some airlines.

Kensington, MD: Talk a bit about noise-cancelling earphones. I bought a pair some years ago and was disappointed. They did dampen the airplane noise considerably, but they seemed to blank mostly the low frequency noise. The larger problem was, I thought, the high frequency whine present in the plane's cabin. I returned the 'phones for a refund.

Has the technology advanced sufficiently that I should consider buying noise canceling earphones once again? The idea is great, but I was disappointed in the application.

David Pescovitz: I was actually impressed with the Sony headphones I mention in the article... But my knowledge on the subject is pretty minimal. I suggest buying a set from somewhere that has an easy return policy in case they don't work for you.

san francisco, ca: What about those Byron Gysin dream machines? Will they be in first class soon?

David Pescovitz: The easiest way to approximate that hypnotizing effect of the dream machine's strobing lights is to close your eyes and push on your eyelids with your thumbs....


Silver Spring, Md: The idea of working on a laptop on a plane is lovely in theory, but only if you're sitting in first or business class. Ever try to use a laptop when you're in coach? And the person in front of you reclines their seat? Suddenly your laptop is REALLY in your lap, if it wasn't squashed in the process.

So really now, aren't some of your ideas about an office in the sky restricted to folks in the forward cabin?

David Pescovitz: Unfortunately, you're pretty accurate in your description of coach class. Trust me, I'm 6ft3 and I've only sat in first class once in my life. But I still managed to work with my laptop sitting in coach on many occasions....

Arlington, VA: I've read that the warnings against using a cell phone or other electronic device before the plane achieves 10,000 feet -and again before landing- are based entirely on theory. That is, there is no real evidence that using a computer or cell phone on board will interfere with the plane's navigation. Of course, I comply with the regulations -just in case and because I don't want to get scolded by a flight attendant-, but what's your expert take on this?

David Pescovitz: I've heard that the concerns are overhyped too, but when I'm 10,000 feet up in the air, I tend to do what I'm told by the people in charge.

Washingtonpost.com: When will airlines allow laptop users to plug directly into an AC outlet at their seats? Aren't some airlines supplying this service in first class?

David Pescovitz: This was discussed in my article: Several airlines are now making the plugs available in coach on some planes....

Washington, DC: Is your column about having an "office in the air" going to be a regular feature in The Post?

David Pescovitz: While I enjoy writing about the subject, I don't think that there are enough advances in this particular niche to warrant an ongoing column. But maybe I could do periodic updates--that's up to the editors. Feel free to pressure them though! :)

Washingtonpost.com: As you've said, the real problem for airborne laptop users is scanty battery life. The situation is much improved over just a few years ago, but there's a long way to go. What's your opinion about the current (pun intended) state of battery research and development? Will batteries, like computers, continue to get smaller, cheaper and more powerful? Or have we bumped up against the law of physics?

David Pescovitz: I'm certain that computers will continue to get smaller, cheaper, and more powerful. Batteries are constantly improving... And market forces are certainly pushing companies to spend more in battery research and development. People want wireless everything, and wireless means batteries required.

Kensington, MD: Why do airport security measures regarding computers vary so greatly? At some airports they make me turn my laptop on to prove it's real. Others have me run it through the x-ray. Others still make me take it out of its case before running it through the detector. Frankly, I don't much like leaving my naked laptop on a conveyor belt while I'm going through the damned metal detector a second time because it gave me the buzzer for my cuff links.

Why the disparity? Or do airport security people simply not have their respective acts together?

David Pescovitz: My thought is that you're experiencing the variation that comes with 'spot-checking.' They probably mix it up so criminals don't know what to expect. But your concern about leaving your laptop unprotected in a valid: there have been rashes reported in the news of people stealing laptops while their owners are being checked. My advice: keep a close eye on your computer.

Arlington, VA: Is it possible to use a computer with a wireless modem on a plane?

David Pescovitz: No... When up in the air, you're almost always out of range of wireless base stations.

Washingtonpost.com: Okay, other than a computer and noise-cancelling headphones, what are some of the must-have items for your office in the clouds?

David Pescovitz: A pen and a piece of paper does wonders.

Arlington, VA: A follow-up on my question about going wireless: If you're out of range of base stations while airborne, then give me an idea what it would cost per hour for an on-board phone connection. I made a phone call from a plane some time ago, maybe a five or ten minute call, and it cost over $12. No way could I use a computer for an hour at those prices. Any suggestions?

David Pescovitz: GTE Airfone has a discounted rate for data calls, but it is still pricey. Check out www.gte.com for more information.

David Pescovitz: Thanks for the questions everyone! If you'd like to read more of my writing, I'm a contributing editor to Wired and a frequent contributor to Scientific American. Have a good trip!

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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