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What the future holds ... maybe

Published on  06 March by Kevin O'Sullivan , Lead Engineer , SITA Lab
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This year, over 72,000 delegates, and 1,700 exhibitors attended Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, the annual mobile technology trade show, organized by the GSMA. Exhibitors showcased phone devices, components, backhaul infrastructure, payments, apps and accessories.

I was at MWC demonstrating SITA Lab's research on near field communications (NFC) for airlines and airports and spotted a few trends at the show that are set to impact the travel industry.

Near field communications (NFC)

This year, the GSMA was promoting the "NFC Experience", which included a demo from SITA Lab for passenger processing and boarding. I submerged myself in the full experience and found that it is ready to go for some use cases, but not others.

Tag reading

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 app on your phone is much simpler and satisfying than trying to photograph a QR code.

Access management

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 my piece on Tnooz 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 Wi-Fi 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 claim 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.

Expected to see, but didn't ...

Two trends I wanted to see but didn't were wearable computing and e-ink. There was only one e-ink manufacturer exhibiting, and much to my disappointment it was showing off established technologies instead of sexy, new, ultra-thin flexible screens.

Wearable computing was thin on the ground too - some digital watches connected via Bluetooth to android phones, and awkward looking headsets that already look a few years behind Google Glass.

My Star of the show

3D Printing with MakerBot - Nokia had MakerBot on its stand creating phone backs for the Lumia range. The MakerBot is about the size of a microwave oven, retails for $2,200 and can print out a phone protector in an hour at a cost of approximately $0.50. My prediction for the future - we'll see high street print shops offering 3D printing services before the end of this year, and 3d printers as commonplace as laser printers within 10 years.

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 the 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.

Were you at MWC also? What are your predictions?

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