I was sitting in Chicago O'Hare waiting for a commuter plane to Raleigh-Durham when I pulled out my PowerBook to kill some time. Within seconds, a young woman who had been hovering around me approached haltingly and said, "Does your laptop do, uh, um, uh … that wireless thing?"
Funny, I had recently wished for Wi-Fi at O'Hare in a past column, and now I couldn't get a signal where we were. She explained that her husband had forgotten which car rental agency they had used since he booked on priceline.com. I looked behind her to see her increasingly agitated husband on his cell phone. He had been calling every car rental agency in the book but no one would talk to him because he didn't have the required information to look up his booking The final boarding call was only minutes away, and, because our flight was landing in Raleigh at 12:30 a.m., there wasn't going to be much time on the ground there to figure things out. The woman explained to me that if she could just get to one e-mail, all the information would be there.
Everything was in place for my finest CTO moment ever. In my most authoritative and reassuring voice, I said, "Don't worry, ma'am, we'll get to that e-mail." (I'm originally from North Carolina, and as I get close to my native state, I actually do use words such as "ma'am.")
I had set my PowerBook up to connect via my Bluetooth phone. Much to the couple’s amazement, I connected to the Internet via the cell phone, handed over my laptop, and she logged into her Web-based e-mail. The car reservation was buried deep in her e-mail, because she scrolled through several screens, and the dialup connection was admittedly not very speedy. Time was running out, about 40Kbps at a time.
Then the final boarding call came, and she hadn't found her reservation yet. Thinking quickly, we boarded the plane and I passed my PowerBook two rows back to her to continue her quest. At that point, someone should have rolled the cameras because it would have made a great commercial. A military man in the row beside her said incredulously (and with a Southern drawl that was truly Hollywood-worthy), "Are you on the Internet??!!" She said, "Yes!" The military guy turned around to everyone around him and announced, "Hey everybody, this woman over here is on the Internet and I don't see NO WIRES!" He waved his hands around an imaginary computer, like a magician performing levitation. His gestures were met by nods of amazement all around. At that moment, it seemed as if everyone in the plane was leaning in to see the magic. She clicked and waited, clicked and waited, then … "YES!” She found her reservation.
This experience encapsulated so many benefits about technology that I don’t really know where to begin. There’s the wireless angle, the smart phone angle, the utility of Bluetooth, and the maturation of the Internet itself as a tool for the average person to get things done in daily life. For me, though, the experience demonstrates something more transcendent than any one technology: when quick thinking and the right solution come together at the right time, technology can be downright heroic. In my daily work, I sometimes get bogged down in budgets and management issues that have nothing to do with technology, but in the end, it’s the sheer wonder of technology that energizes me.
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