Mobile Wi-Fi's Baby Steps

Likewise, most Wi-Fi signup pages at hotels and airports assume you're connecting from a laptop, and don't bother to detect you're using a handheld and, thus, reformat the page automatically. You get pages that are hard to navigate on a mobile device, whose buttons are hard to click, whose page templates don't always allow zooming in, and that sometimes rely on Flash (which locks out the most popular mobile Web device, the iPhone). The airlines have figured it out, and there's no reason hotel chains can't do so as well.

Web developers, It is very easy to detect what type of device is accessing your site or page by using the .htaccess file on your Apache server or a JavaScript to detect the user agent (device identifier). Here are the common IDs you should be looking for:

  • *Mobile.*Safari (iPhone and iPod Touch)

  • *iPad

  • *BlackBerry8

  • *BlackBerry9

  • *MSIE\ 6.*Windows\ CE (Windows Mobile 6.x)

  • *Android

  • *Nokia.*WebKit

  • *Blazer/4 (Palm OS 4)

  • *Opera.*Mini/4

  • *Opera.*Mini/5

Inflight Wi-Fi Aimed at Handheld Users
About that Gogo in-flight Wi-Fi service: It was available on most flights I took on Alaska, American, Delta, and JetBlue; United and AirTran advertise it too. It's pricey, at $8 per segment for handheld devices for flights of more than 90 minutes' duration, and $13 for laptops for flights of more than three hours' duration. It's $5 for flights of less than 90 minutes' duration, and $10 for laptop access on flights of between 90 minutes and three hours' duration.

You can't log in via a laptop if you pay for the handheld service, though you can connect from a handheld if you pay for the laptop service; if you buy a $35 monthly subscription, you can use either device on any supported flight. Aircell, which provides the service, says it charges more for laptops because they use more bandwidth. Naturally, there's no roaming allowed outside Gogo-equipped planes.

Aircell forbids VoIP and discourages streaming media, warning that the service may get very slow or stop altogether if you stream video. Because it is a private network, Gogo can ration bandwith any way it likes. Thus, you should do your iTunes, Netflix, or what-have-you downloads before you get on the plane -- theoretically. A company spokeswoman says that streaming is the fifth most popular usage, after Web browsing, email, instant messaging, and VPN access. You can forget about using services like Skype, though I have to say I'm not unhappy that people can't be chatting all around me on the phone during flights.

It appears to me that usage is low so far. Aircell says it has had 3.1 million sessions since the service launched last year, out of tens of millions of passengers on those planes. The company won't disclose what the average usage percentage is, but my unscientific eyeball counts on half a dozen flights puts it well under 2 percent. Given all the pickpocket charges the airlines already impose on travelers, another $10 for Wi-Fi may be one fee too many.

What's interesting about the Gogo service is its orientation to smartphones and handhelds. It pushes the handheld/smartphone service in its promotions, which makes sense: On most airlines (JetBlue is a blessed exception), the space between coach seats is so short that you can't type on a laptop on your tray table and have the screen titled back enough to see. Therefore, you can't really use a laptop in flight in coach. But you can use a smartphone, iPod Touch, or iPad -- especially on the slowly increasing number of planes that have USB power connectors on their seat arms or seatbacks. You can power a handheld or iPad from such a port, but not a laptop.

Where we are today is that there's more mobile Wi-Fi available, but the fractured fiefdoms add hassle and cost. The providers need to figure out how to stitch their services together and stop trying to carve out all these separate silos -- they inhibit usage that way. I figure in another five years, this mobile Wi-Fi thing may finally work right.

Don't forget to be part of the InfoWorld Mobile Patrol: Send in your tips, complaints, news, and ideas to comments@infoworldmobile.com. Thanks!

This article, "Mobile Wi-Fi slowly, awkwardly starts to come together," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Gruman et al.'s Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile computing at InfoWorld.com.

Subscribe to the Business Brief Newsletter

Comments