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November 30, 2000

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From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
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FEBRUARY 25, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 7

Access Baggage
From remote islands to five-star hotels, for travelers seamless Internet connections are no longer a luxury

The Businessman
Alex Liu is a true road warrior. For the past ten years, Liu has spent most of his life on the move - 280 days a year to be exact. The business consultant has gotten used to traveling not only with his mobile phone, personal computer and a palmtop, but also with a bag full of electrical adapters. The hotels Liu stayed in were rarely able to provide him with the plugs he might need. Connecting to the Internet was often a test of ingenuity. Liu recalls spending an inordinate amount of time fidgeting with phone sockets every time he wanted to check his e-mail.

These days it is the hotels that are doing the adapting. Almost all the major chains now provide Internet access in their business centers. Most four- and five-star establishments even offer a second telephone line in every bedroom for their laptop-toting guests to connect to the Net. Today when Liu packs his briefcase, he leaves the bag of tricks at home. "I check voice-mail and e-mail, receive urgent faxes and connect in any hotel to relatively high speed links," he says.

Hong Kong's Hyatt Regency was one of the first hotels in Asia to realize the need to offer its guests good tech support. "Most business travelers use their rooms as their offices while on the road," says Therese Necio-Ortega, the hotel's communications manager. "Their companies demand that they stay connected to their offices electronically." The Hyatt began offering Internet access in each of its 269 rooms as long ago as June 1997. Last September the hotel upgraded to lightning-fast, broadband connections. The Hyatt has even begun offering three rooms for guests to conduct simultaneous global videoconferencing and has trained "technology concierges" on call 24 hours a day. "We like to embrace technology, but we have a barrier," says Necio-Ortega. "Technology is expensive and most hotel owners won't want to invest in technology because it changes so fast."

VOL.2 NO.1

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On the Road: Business Or Pleasure, It's Getting Easier To Travel And Stay Connected

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Toolbox: How To Install Linux On Your Pc A Malaysian Website Makes An End Run Around Media Restrictions

Net Index: Asia's Tech Stock Bubble Has More Room To Rise

E-vesting: Online Pundit David Webb Uncovers Hong Kong Corporate Horror Stories

Assif Online: Singapore's Financial Portals Gear-Up For Online Trading

B2B: Global Traders Try To Beat The Boat

Wired Exec: Acer Whiz Goes Unplugged By Night

Business Buzz: Japan -- Land of the rising Internet ad spend

Cutting Edge: If you like Apple's iBook laptop, but think its candy-colored case clashes with your macho image, then how about one in gun-metal gray?

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The decision to install broadband was made easy for the Hyatt Regency management: They didn't have to pay a cent. The bill was footed by I-Quest Corp., whose WorldRoom Connect service is at the forefront of Web connectivity in Asia's hospitality industry. Founded four years ago in Hong Kong by a group of ex-journalists, I-Quest invests up to $500 per room setting up broadband connections and then charges guests a fee from $10 to $20 a day - of which 20% is passed back to the hotels. In return, the guest gets to plug his laptop into a special socket offering connection speeds up to 10 megabits per second - 175 times faster than a standard dial-up modem. Users don't even need need a computer. "If you didn't bring a laptop you just ask for one of ours from the front desk," says Anthony Blass, I-Quest's chairman and CEO.

Blass came up with the idea for WorldRoom Connect six years ago during his own travels around Asia, but most of I-Quest's clients signed on only recently. So far the service is offered by 15 major hotels in six cities, a total of 7,800 rooms. "The hotels realize that there is a need for broadband connectivity," says Blass. "But that recognition occurred just six to nine months ago." He estimates that by the end of this year his firm will have signed up twice as many hotel chains and wired up more than 70,000 rooms.

Major chains with plans to install broadband include the Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott, Sheraton, Westin, Inter-Continental and Holiday Inn. Most are beginning in the U.S. but will soon bring such services to Asia as well. Hong Kong-based Shangri-La Hotels recently announced that it would install broadband access in its 37 hotels in the region by the middle of next year, allowing guests to surf the Net via TVs as well as their notebooks.

Rapid advances in hardware will make life even easier for traveling executives. In March, Motorola will launch the Tai Chi, a combined palmtop computer and cellphone aimed at the Greater China market. The Tai Chi, which will retail for around $500, uses the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) standard, allowing users to surf truncated versions of existing websites. Most major phone makers, including Nokia and Ericsson, are working on similar devices. In the next few years, third generation, or 3G, wireless technology promises to bring broadband Internet access to such mobile gadgets. Motorola is co-developing with NTT DoCoMo, Japan's leading mobile service provider, a handset that will allow videoconferencing between multiple users.

Further into the future, executives will be able to access their personal files without needing to take their PCs on the road at all, says Blass of I-Quest. He points to Sun Microsystems' new Sun Ray appliances, network computers that let you access your own PC desktop from anywhere in the world at the identifying swipe of a smart card. For road warriors, it seems, the battle is all but won.

By Allen T. Cheng/Hong Kong

The Backpacker
It's New Year's Eve, 1999 on the Thai island of Koh Samui. The party of the millennium is fast approaching and Jason Baxter and Susan Gordon are arranging to meet up with some traveling friends. A few years ago this would have involved a paper chase of scribbled notes placed hopefully on hotel noticeboards. But today the young Scots couple are sitting in an Internet café, downloading and sending e-mail at high speed via a satellite dish bolted to the roof.

Baxter and Gordon have been away from home for two years, passing through the U.S., New Zealand, Australia and Asia. Go-anywhere Internet access has made organizing a rendezvous easy, staying in touch a cinch. When Gordon sends an e-mail from Samui, there's a good chance a reply will ping straight back from Scotland. "My brother works on a PC all day," she explains. "So messages come up instantly on his screen."

Conducting real-time exchanges between the northern edge of Europe and an Asian island where "emergency" power generators are assured a daily workout sounds impressive. But for tourists in Thailand, going online has become as routine as shopping for gaudy pants on Bangkok's Khao San road. Forget Leonardo DiCaprio. Forget the romantic image of the backpacker adrift and incommunicado in paradise. Today's travelers are more wired than weird.

On Samui it all began at the end of 1996, when Briton David Stewart opened the doors of Go Internet Café, the island's first. Things were different then. "People mainly wanted to browse the Internet," says Stewart. "They sometimes asked to use our e-mail account to get messages forwarded to them. Now they just say: 'How much is your Hotmail?'"

In three years, Microsoft's Web-based free e-mail service has become a virtual synonym for e-mail on a wired tourist trail where every other door touts Internet access. "In Samui everybody is doing it," says Stewart. "You'll see signs that say: 'Tailor - Book Holiday/Laundry/Hotmail.' Old grannies come in and peck away at the keyboard - obviously without any grasp of a computer. All they know is they need a screen that says Hotmail in front of them."

Gone are the days when travelers headed to a new location unsure where they will be spending the night. Just browse the Web, find some accommodation in the next town and e-mail to make sure there's a pillow with your name on it. In places like Samui, Net access has become less a money-spinner than a basic utility. Like mattresses, electricity and running water, a website and a network of PCs has become an essential tool to attract guests. At Stewart's new establishment, the Blue Lagoon Cottages, the residents of the 20 basic chalets get the run of four networked PCs. "Some of the backpackers balk at paying the minimum charge of 50 baht [$1.30] for 15 minutes," he says. "They say: 'But I only want to check my mail. What if I haven't got any messages?'" At Samui's tiny airport, Bangkok Airways provides Net access for free. Along the island's main beaches, the old bamboo-and-beer Internet cafés have given way to multimedia studios that offer color printing, scanning - even videoconferencing.

It's not just in beach-bum territory where the postcard business is facing ruin. When Paul Marshall, a senior consultant for a corporate relocation firm, locked his Hong Kong office in November and embarked on a three-month world tour, he took a laptop and digital camera with him. Instead of scratching out a dozen identical Wish-You-Were-Heres from stops in London, Madrid, Miami and his native Australia, Marshall shot off lengthy e-mails to over 50 friends and relatives at a time - complete with photos of wedding parties and New Year celebrations attached. "It's fun keeping friends up to date with your adventures," e-mails Marshall from Melbourne. "And being able to keep in touch takes the angst out of hopping from city to city. My family can get in contact in case of emergencies - and I can find a friend with a couch to sleep on at my next destination."

Surfing while traveling can only get easier. The ability to circumvent planning regulations means that the next step in connectivity, wireless broadband, will come to New Delhi almost as soon as New York. Net access devices will shrink from being too big for a backpack to something small enough to lose in your hand luggage. At the Blue Lagoon, David Stewart is looking forward to junking his 33 kilobits-per-second dial-up modems and installing a 10-kbps satellite connection in their place. It doesn't matter how remote you are geographically. It's only when you're not on the Net that you're really in the middle of nowhere.

By Stuart Whitmore/Koh Samui

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