You know something’s up when companies give you a technology overview, but curiously don’t have anything to demonstrate. Or if they do, it’s actually a mock-up. Over ten years ago, I well remember a press briefing about the then-forthcoming in-place editing capabilities of Office, or rather Word and Excel. Onscreen was a straightforward document in Word – a few paragraphs of text, surrounding an embedded Excel worksheet. “And with just one click,” the presenter intoned, “we can ‘instantiate’ the Excel worksheet, making it come alive.”
At the time, it was a pretty potent demonstration, but like many it was actually a lash-up done using a simple form in Visual Basic and a few invisible hotspots laid over some screenshots. The demonstrator had been told exactly where to click, and not to attempt to do anything else. There was a bit of a fuss when I demanded to know whether it was a real demonstration of pre-release Office code or a VB mock-up. And when it was admitted it was actually the latter, we walked out en masse.
There’s nothing wrong with a mock-up, of course, providing you make it crystal clear this is what you’re showing. I spent a whole day at Microsoft being shown “technology demonstrations” of how the future Windows for Washing Machines was going to work. Naturally, Microsoft didn’t call it Windows for Washing Machines, because it was targeting semi-intelligent devices hosted on the network like large laser printers, but the name stuck and seemed somehow appropriate. And it came to nowt.
The one I really wanted to work, however, was the demonstration Microsoft gave for an in-flight system. It used a small PC mounted in the base of each seat, a networking ring around the plane, and the opportunity to watch play-on-demand video from central servers. Obviously, it would have been wonderful if there was some sort of internet connection in there as well, but that seemed a little too Star Trek for the time.
And then came 9/11, and the need to make best use of your time while in the air. Coincidentally or not, the means to do Wi-Fi on the plane, connecting to an impressive rack of equipment that then communicated with the ground via satellite, was promised and a few companies installed such systems, notably Lufthansa. It was promised for British Airways too, only for Boeing to pull the plug on it this August – even it couldn’t make something so useful economically viable.
Which means I’m still stuck with the in-flight entertainment system on British Airways. Its idea of in-flight entertainment is a number of tape-based film players that have endless azimuth and head-alignment errors, ensuring the film has a nasty noise bar halfway across the screen and a soundtrack that sounds like it’s coming from inside a concrete mixer. Thank heavens for iPods and noise-cancelling headphones. And especially for the in-seat power connectors that let you plug your laptop straight in and do whatever essential work is required. (Obviously, I mean “watch my own DVD”, but that doesn’t sound quite so professional.)
So imagine my surprise while on an internal US flight from New York to San Francisco recently on Delta. Stuck in economy, I wasn’t expecting much, but the in-flight system was stunningly good. Live satellite television to each screen, and lots of channels to choose from. Not only that, I could pay to watch some premium films too. The screen was large, clear and bright, and the picture quality made the transatlantic flight on BA look like the 1980s rubbish it really is.