From the Front Lines

It was a typical morning in April 2004. I was flying from Philadelphia to San Francisco to catch a five-hour supersonic flight to Tokyo, when my Ubiquitizer, a palm organizer with a built-in wireless phone, suddenly began to beep. Glancing at the four-inch screen, I was alerted to an urgent message sent via the Internet from my travel agent. The Tokyo flight had been canceled because of mechanical problems, and the next jet wouldn't leave until the following morning. But that was too late for me to make my critical meeting in Tokyo with one of my agency's biggest clients.

Fortunately, I'd been blessed with a talented administrative assistant named Alicia, who reached me on the Ubiquitizer's phone minutes after I had received my travel agent's message. Even in the ultradigital world of the 21st century, I still rely on a human assistant who's familiar with my idiosyncratic tastes. Having received copies of my messages, Alicia had already arranged for me to spend the next eight hours at San Francisco's airport hotel. She had even booked the hotel's videoconference facility so that I wouldn't miss my meeting. In the past I would have found videoconferencing less than optimal. But with advances in broadband high-speed networks that have virtually eliminated speech and video delays, I leaped at the chance to forgo my connecting flight.

When I arrived at the hotel, I went directly to room 801. I didn't even check in at the front desk because the hotel had wirelessly transmitted the room number and rate to a microchip embedded in my Visa smart card. To confirm the reservation and get my room number, I just plugged the card into my Ubiquitizer to call up those details and then E-mailed a message to the hotel saying that I accepted the charge. No need even to stop for room keys because the smart card also unlocked my door.

Exhausted, I entered my room, plunked down on the couch, and clicked on the television. I watched a few minutes of CNN and then used the television's Web-browser function to check my E-mail. My 10-year-old daughter, Jessica, had left me a video message just so she could show off her new lacrosse uniform and tell me that she'd made the team. And there was a note from Alicia, informing me that she had made arrangements for me to visit our operations in Los Angeles. With the Tokyo trip off, she figured that I had the free time. My instructions were to head to gate 15 after my videoconference and board the 4 p.m. flight to Los Angeles International Airport.

Hours later, as my cab was nearing the terminal, my Ubiquitizer began to beep again. This time the E-mail that scrolled across its screen was from the airport's Flight Link Information service (FLI) telling me that my flight would depart from a different concourse. (Designed for frequent travelers, FLI stores subscribers' itineraries in its database and then notifies them automatically via E-mail if their flight information has changed.) But I still had plenty of time to catch the plane, because I wouldn't be waylaid by the old, time-consuming check-in process. Just like the hotel reservation, my flight information--including gate number, seat number, and boarding pass--had been electronically transmitted to my smart card from the airline when the flight was booked. Since I had no luggage to check, I breezed to the gate, where a flight attendant quickly swiped my smart card through an electronic reader that transferred my flight information into the airline's computer. And finally, just to make sure that my smart card wasn't "hot," airline security asked me to stare into a retinal scanner that matched my retina against the one encoded on my card.

The flight left on time, so I settled back in my seat, enjoyed a beer, and pulled out my laptop. Even though I had used the sleek, one-pound machine with its 20-inch screen for two hours earlier in the day, the newly designed plastic batteries still had about 18 hours left in them. So I plugged my computer into the high-speed digital-modem port on my seat arm and connected to my personal home page to collect my E-mail messages as well as my paper faxes and voice-mail messages, which my company's unified-messaging application had converted to electronic text and zapped to my home page. Thankfully, my artificial intelligence-based "E-mail filter" had already deleted any spamming. Of the messages that made it through, one was from my wife, Renee, reminding me that we hadn't vacationed together in a year. She had arranged for a baby-sitter for four nights in June and had margaritas on her mind. Getting the hint, I quickly connected to my travel agent's Web page and entered our vacation dates along with the amount we felt we could afford. I also specified that we wanted a beach and that nightlife wasn't important since we were both "born to be mild."