Ring­ing the changes

From por­ta­ble type­writ­ers to brick-like mo­biles, the tech tools of those trav­el­ling for work have un­der­gone a revo­lu­tion

Business Traveller (Asia-Pacific) - - OPINION - JEFF MILLS A TRAVEL RE­PORTER AND ED­I­TOR FOR MORE THAN 30 YEARS

It’s the mid-1970s and I’m set­ting off on yet an­other over­seas busi­ness trip. There’s the suit­case and the carry-on, one of those chunky leather bags much loved by air­line pi­lots and trav­el­ling jour­nal­ists (you could fit half a dozen bot­tles of booze in­side them if the need arose). Then there was the lat­est tech­nol­ogy for glo­be­trot­ting busi­ness peo­ple: a so-called por­ta­ble type­writer, which weighed the best part of to­day’s to­tal air­line bag­gage al­lowance, with plenty of pa­per, car­bon pa­per and rib­bons to go with it.

In those days, tech­nol­ogy was heavy, and re­mained so for quite some time. When mo­bile phones ap­peared in the mid-1980s, they were so huge you had to carry them in a spe­cial bag. I still proudly re­mem­ber my first one. It was mo­bile only in the sense it was fit­ted into my com­pany car. The hand­set could be fixed to the dash­board or be­tween the front seats, but the main work­ings were in a steel box, which was so hefty it had to be in­stalled in the boot.

OP­ER­A­TOR AS­SIS­TANCE

Whether trav­el­ling in the UK or in­ter­na­tion­ally, the chal­lenges of stay­ing in touch with the of­fice con­tin­ued when I reached my des­ti­na­tion. Once I had checked in to my ho­tel, my first ques­tion to the re­cep­tion staff was usu­ally, “Where is the busi­ness cen­tre?”

A visit was al­ways a pri­or­ity, just to make sure that it had ev­ery­thing I was likely to need, in­clud­ing phones, which al­lowed you to make re­verse-charge calls to the of­fice and, a few years later, a fax ma­chine for trans­mit­ting pages of prose di­rect from my por­ta­ble type­writer.

In some over­seas coun­tries it was even ne­c­es­sary to book a phone call back to the of­fice, some­times days ahead. Even then, there was no guar­an­tee that an in­ter­na­tional tele­phone line would be avail­able when you needed it. You sim­ply had to be near your des­ig­nated phone at the agreed time and hope for the best.

And, in those far-off days, you would have been fool­ish to even think of us­ing the phone in your ho­tel room for fear of the eye-wa­ter­ing cost. You needed to have a very un­der­stand­ing boss to sign off those kinds of ex­pense bills.

One ho­tel gen­eral man­ager of my ac­quain­tance once ad­mit­ted to me that gue­stroom phones were con­sid­ered a profit-cen­tre in the five-star ho­tel he ran (which will re­main name­less). Most years they con­trib­uted around £1 mil­lion (US$1.3 mil­lion) to the ho­tel’s bot­tom line, he told me.

The emer­gence from the tech­no­log­i­cal dark ages for those trav­el­ling over­seas on busi­ness – and, for that mat­ter, those work­ing in of­fices any­where – re­ally started when type­writ­ers were re­placed by elec­tronic word pro­ces­sors, which of course still didn’t al­low you to trans­mit doc­u­ments. They even­tu­ally mor­phed into com­put­ers, which did.

Mind you, early ver­sions of com­put­ers weren’t por­ta­ble enough to be taken on a busi­ness trip, but it did mean you might be lucky enough to find a desk­top ver­sion you could use (pos­si­bly for a fee) in your ho­tel’s busi­ness cen­tre. This meant that by us­ing a mo­dem it was pos­si­ble to trans­mit your doc­u­ments down a phone line to an­other com­puter back at head­quar­ters.

Lap­top com­put­ers were hot on the heels of these desk­top de­signs, but even they were of­ten a bit too big to take on a busi­ness trip. Their grad­ual light­en­ing led to iPads and other forms of tablet, which were able to per­form many of the func­tions of a lap­top with none of the weight prob­lems. Work aside, they also pro­vide en­ter­tain­ment should the in-flight of­fer­ings fall short of your ex­pec­ta­tions, and that is only the start. Few busi­ness trav­ellers these days would dream of leav­ing home with­out one.

The so-called por­ta­ble type­writer weighed the best part of to­day’s to­tal air­line bag­gage al­lowance

MARCH OF PROGRESS

The irony is that as tech­nol­ogy has be­come lighter, so the op­tions for trans­port­ing it have im­proved. Suit­cases with wheels were an ab­sur­dity back then. The wheels fell off, and the car­peted sur­faces in air­ports meant you had to drag the case. Now wheels have im­proved, many cases have four or even eight wheels (when counted in pairs), and we can hap­pily take a five-day trip with­out even check­ing in our bags, with our tech­nol­ogy tucked away some­where in our lug­gage.

What has changed now is air­port se­cu­rity. I re­cently for­got I had an iPad in my bag, but was re­minded as I was sub­jected to secondary screen­ing. What a dif­fer­ence. From stag­ger­ing through an air­port with a type­writer to for­get­ting I was car­ry­ing a pow­er­ful com­puter. Now that’s progress. It’s just a shame about the ne­ces­sity for all that se­cu­rity, but maybe tech­nol­ogy will fix even that. Here’s hop­ing.

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