Technologists are often obsessed with the next great thing. We have now accomplished the transformation to the digital world. We have “smart” systems that can help us find the best deal, provide access to digital versions of many documents, and tools to readily edit anything in digital form. So what will be next?
One glimpse of this future can be found in the TED lecture by Pattie Maes of MIT titled “Sixth Sense”. Other exciting ideas show up in technology labs and startup companies. The development has not stopped with the slowing of the economy.
But I’ve been thinking, not about what is coming next, but about the state of existing applications. Yesterday’s technology has not been fully implemented, or has been implemented poorly. I recently encountered two examples of this. I comment on these for two reasons. First, to show we are a long way from realizing the benefits of current technology. Second, as a warning to those who might assume they can trust the system to give them what is advertised.
Finding a Low-Priced Ticket
I needed to schedule some travel, and wanted a reasonably priced ticket from Seattle to Zurich, with a stop in Copenhagen on the way. I needed a direct flight home because I had an obligation back in Seattle by late afternoon of the day I was returning. In the old days, you would call a travel agency for this, but with technology, this is an easy problem to solve, right?
Since I have a lot of miles on United Air Lines, I looked there first. I picked a reasonably direct route from Seattle to Copenhagen (which used their code-share carrier SAS) and the only flight their system would give me was Copenhagen to Zurich by way of Frankfort (using their code share with Lufthansa), and finally a flight from Zurich through Frankfort for the nonstop to Seattle at the other end of the trip (using their code-share carrier Lufthansa). Other than the required transfer on the flight from Copenhagen to Zurich, the schedule was good, meeting everything I wanted. The price of $5,144 for the lowest coach fare was not good. The pop-up window said, “Rest Assured, Lowest Price Guaranteed,” but I thought I could do better.
So I went to my standard fare finders —www.orbitz.com, www.expedia.com, and www.vayama.com — to see what they would have to offer. This was much more promising. The first solution at Vayama found a flight for $1,700. The only problem was that both transatlantic trips were through Washington, D.C., a huge time sink if you look at the great circle routes (or the time tables). Their Copenhagen to Zurich flight required a change in Dusseldorf. The return took 21 hours, not getting me home until 9 p.m. at the end of the trip, too late to meet my obligation.
The best Orbitz solution was about $2,000, with similar problems between Copenhagen and Zurich (a change in Amsterdam) and a flight home that arrived around 9 p.m. Expedia was about the same.
I was about to give up on finding both a reasonably priced solution and one that met all my specs when I thought of another approach. I went back to the United site to see how they would price an open ticket — Seattle to Copenhagen followed by Zurich to Seattle. Amazingly, this flight combination, using the same legs as the ticket for $5,144, cost only $996. Of course I still needed to go from Copenhagen to Zurich. So I went back to Expedia for a one-way ticket from Copenhagen to Zurich, and found one on SAS (a United code share, incidentally) for $126, nonstop. So I satisfied all of the time specs, got a nonstop from Copenhagen to Zurich, and got the entire routing for $1,122. The pop-up window with the statement, “Spend less time planning your travel when you skip the clicking, surfing and searching and go straight to united.com for the best United fares,” took on new meaning.
Why didn’t the United site find this flight combination? Or one of the other integrators? It is easy to assume they were trying to take advantage of me. But I have often used the statement over the years, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.” (A variety of names are associated with the origin of this statement.)
Lessons learned: In the case of travel, don’t accept the first answer you get on any flight-planning computer system. They just aren’t good enough. If you work at it, particularly on international trips, you can do much better. Often you can get a better price by calling the airline, even when they advertise that the best prices are on the web. Often you also get a better price with two independent segments rather than one. Second, this is just one example that shows our technology systems are less sophisticated than most people would think. There must be an opportunity here somewhere!
Getting a Digital Paper
Such problems are not limited to travel systems. Here is a second example. I needed access to three articles from a European mathematics journal that our Seattle Pacific University library did not have. I went online, but these articles were not in one of the databases subscribed to by our university.
The librarian offered two solutions to the problem. Since our university is in a grouping with other universities in the area, I could order a copy of the article online, though I would not get the articles for a couple of weeks. But I could also drive to the University of Washington and access the articles there. Then I could either print the article for a few cents per page, or email a copy of the article to myself.
I ordered one of the articles, but with the two-week wait time, decided to drive to the University of Washington for quicker access. The system there worked very well, allowing access to the one I had already ordered and to one of the others. Being both environmentally aware and cheap, I chose to email the articles to myself. The library computer did not allow me to access my own email to verify I had received the articles, but I didn’t think another thing about it. The third article they did not have, so I made an appointment at the mathematics library, where they retrieved a copy of the particular journal from their archives. I printed the article on a copier for a nominal charge.
The surprise came when I got home. The two articles were indeed in my email inbox, but only in abstract form. If I wanted to print or download the complete article, I needed to pay $31.50 per article. I declined, thinking I would drive back to the University of Washington to print them. But the next day, the first article arrived in my email, complete and at no charge. Interestingly, it was not the clear PDF copy from the scanned journal, but something that had obviously been scanned by a person, then emailed to me.
Thinking about this from the view of today’s technology, several issues come to mind. It is easy to understand why the one article was not available, as it was an older journal and these “digitization” projects take time. They had simply not digitized this particular journal before 1992.
The other two were in digital form, however. They should have been accessible from anywhere as long as the library exchange provisions were in place. Driving across town to another computer to access them makes no sense. A third party entering the system to charge for access to the article compounded the problem. The need for someone to rescan the article so that I could receive it for free rather than using the digitized form was strange indeed.
Part of the problem here is the digital rights issue that makes accessing material uneven at best.
Driving, rescanning, being charged for something without warning. Together, these demonstrate another very poor implementation of yesterday’s digital technology.
Long ago (1995) Bill Gates wrote in his first book, The Road Ahead, about friction-free systems, where information would move accurately and seamlessly enabling almost instantaneous access.
It is still a nice dream, but we are a long way from it. Whether sorting the information to get what you want (as in the case of the airline ticket) or simply accessing the information (as in the case of the library articles) there remains a great deal of friction in the system.
It doesn’t require new technology to address these issues. But it does take a bit of legal work and a great deal of careful work on implementations.
Al Erisman is executive editor of Ethix, which he co-founded in 1998.
He spent 32 years at The Boeing Company, the last 11 as director of technology.
He was selected as a senior technical fellow of The Boeing Company in 1990,
and received his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Iowa State University.