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Traveling Wired (and Wireless): The Evolution of Travel Tools

There's no question that technology has had a sweeping effect on travel—imagine your vacation before the advent of the steam engine or the jet plane. If those marvels changed forever where we could go, then the advances of the last 30 years have changed how we go. Today we search on-line for airfares, get cash from ATM's, and keep in touch on global cell phones, all thanks to technology that didn't even exist in 1971. Here, a retrospective of the past three decades, and a glimpse of what's on the way.

1971
> The PhoneMate Model 400, one of the first commercially viable answering machines, makes its debut, letting people leave you messages when you're away from home. You need plenty of counter space—the bulky machine weighs 10 pounds and stores messages on reel-to-reel tape.

1972
> Programmer Ray Tomlinson sends the first electronic mail message, to himself, on the U.S. government's computer network (which would later evolve into the Internet). E-mail quickly becomes the most popular program on the network.

> U.K. bank Lloyd's introduces the first "cash point" machine, dispensing currency to users who insert a magnetic card. A few years later, the first true ATM's—a passbook with a magnetic strip gives you access to cash and other banking services—arrive in the United States and Japan. A generation of PIN-users is born.

1974
> Motorola releases the first consumer pager, the PageBoy.

> The International Telegraph & Telephone Consultative Committee creates the first worldwide fax standard. Machines in the United States and Europe can now send documents to one another, but be prepared to wait: a single page takes six minutes to transmit.

1976
> The first compact autofocus camera is shown as a prototype at the Photokina exhibit. Consumer models appear a year later.

1979
> Sony introduces its Walkman (briefly called the SoundAbout), the first personal stereo with headphones. It's the ultimate anti-communication device—the perfect way to avoid a chatty neighbor on the plane.

1980
> The first electronic voice-mail system is installed, and Business Week calls it "one of the most talked-about technologies around." Travelers can now easily send and get messages from the road without having to speak with an actual person. Soon enough, callers everywhere are spending 20 minutes in voice-mail systems trying to reach an actual person.

1981
> Thanks to a computer innovation, AT&T institutes modern national toll-free service. Now, at least, travelers are wasting only time—and not money—waiting on hold to make a reservation.

1982
> The Weather Channel debuts.

> The Epson HX-20, the first notebook-sized portable computer, arrives in the United States. It weighs four pounds and has four lines of display.

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1983
> Westin accepts credit cards for settling bills, becoming the first major hotel chain to do so.

> VingCard invents the electronic hotel key card.

1984
> Motorola releases the world's first commercial portable cellular phone, the nearly two-pound DynaTAC 8000X ($3,995). Motorola calls it portable, but at that weight, we're not so sure.

> Sony introduces the first portable CD player, the Discman, for use in cars. Tiny bumps in the road suddenly become a hazard, since they cause the player to skip.

1985
> Airfone (now GTE Airfone) initiates nationwide air-to-ground service on several major airlines. Undoubtedly, early customers go into shock over the bills.

1988
> The number of ATM's worldwide reaches 100,000. Travelers begin using their bank cards to obtain foreign currency abroad—and avoid paying fees at currency exchange kiosks.

1989
> Compaq releases two laptops with the performance of a PC: the LTE and the LTE/286. The models weigh six pounds, and come with a standard 3.5-inch floppy disk drive and a hard drive with decent memory—an unprecedented combination.

> Nintendo introduces Game Boy. Thousands of parents relax as their kids play Tetris all flight long.

1990
> The World Wide Web is born at the particle physics laboratory CERN in Geneva.

1991
> Westin is the first hotel chain to introduce in-room voice mail.

1992
> The number of U.S. cell phone subscribers exceeds 10 million.

> U.S. airlines begin banning the use of electronic devices (including CD players, laptops, and those cell phones) during takeoff and landing.

1993
> ValuJet (now AirTran Airways) starts offering e-tickets.

> Apple presents the first personal digital assistant (PDA), the Newton MessagePad. It uses handwritten input, and critics complain that it garbles words. Apple discontinues it in 1998.

1994
> ValuJet (now AirTran Airways) starts offering e-tickets.

> Apple presents the first personal digital assistant (PDA), the Newton MessagePad. It uses handwritten input, and critics complain that it garbles words. Apple discontinues it in 1998.

1995
> ValuJet (now AirTran Airways) starts offering e-tickets.

> Apple presents the first personal digital assistant (PDA), the Newton MessagePad. It uses handwritten input, and critics complain that it garbles words. Apple discontinues it in 1998.

1996
> The first popular PDA, the Pilot (precursor to the Palm Pilot), comes on the market. A cult following ensues.

> WebTV is introduced. Hotels tout it as a means of connecting to the Internet without a computer, but hold on to your laptop: guests using it cite myriad frustrations.

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1997
> Portable DVD players arrive in stores, from Panasonic. Bored airline passengers no longer need sit through Free Willy 3: The Rescue.

1998
> Iridium unveils the first consumer satellite-based global wireless phone, the one-pound, $3,000 Motorola Satellite Series 9500. The company attracts 50,000 customers, incurs debt of more than $4 billion, and declares bankruptcy in 1999.

> 3Com releases the first wireless PDA, the Palm VII.

> Laptop Lane introduces rentable office space—equipped with computers and high-speed Internet access—at airports. Too bad there's so much time to kill.

1999
> A big year for airline innovations: Swissair introduces wireless check-in, via Internet-enabled cell phone. (This option doesn't arrive in the United States until 2001, from Alaska Airlines.) Northwest begins flight status notification, sending details to your pager, cell phone, wireless PDA, or PC. Alaska Airlines becomes the first U.S. carrier to allow you to check in and print your own boarding pass using a personal computer.

> Ritz-Carlton is the first luxury hotel chain to install high-speed Internet access in all rooms at almost all properties.

2000
> Automakers begin offering wireless Internet access in American cars. Now all we need is a Web site that will fill up the gas tank and drive the car.

> Motorola's Timeport L7089, the first tri-band GSM phone, hits the U.S. market. American travelers are finally able to use their everyday phone in Djibouti.

> The number of U.S. cell phone subscribers surpasses 100 million.

> Virgin Atlantic introduces a service that transfers personal cell phone calls to onboard seat phones. "I was on a plane" is taken off the list of viable excuses for ignoring co-workers.

> CitySync and Vindigo launch full-scale, updated city guides for PDA users.

> New budget airline JetBlue is the first to offer live TV on its flights.

> The U.S. government stops distorting GPS signals, making devices 10 times more accurate—and at last worth their price tags.

2001
> Singapore Airlines rolls out the first commercial flights with satellite-based Internet access. A number of airlines quickly follow suit. "I was on a plane" is definitively taken off the list of viable excuses for ignoring co-workers.

2002
> Wireless networks in airports and hotels become commonplace. As long as there's a network available, any traveler with a laptop, a wireless modem, and a pricey subscription can go on-line, without a phone line in sight.

2003
> "Smart homes"—in which household appliances are connected through a network—are installed everywhere. These ultra-wired houses let you monitor the entire system over the Internet. So from a Paris café, you can turn on the porch light, make sure the coffeemaker is off, and check if the basement is flooded.

2005
> The next wave of cell phones, called 3G, grabs the American market. They offer high-speed wireless Web access, paging, fax capability, e-mail, and audio and video streaming. As if people don't already spend too much time on their cell phones.

> All new cars come with Internet access.

2006
> GPS technology is widely used in consumer gadgets, such as maps and tracking devices. Stolen cars, wandering toddlers, and lost hikers become things of the distant past. As in, the 20th century.

Additional reporting by Hillary Geronemus, Robert Maniaci, and Heather Summerville

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