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When he gets out of business class, the Pacific traveler still faces an equally daunting challenge: Asia’s diverse languages. But Asian execs armed with cell phones will soon have no trouble speaking the language of the land. A special software being developed by IBM will allow them to speak into their handphones, which will then translate through digital display and voice simulation. Researchers are also working on more sophisticated translation software that would allow business people speaking different languages to do real-time conference or video calls. The time horizon for that product is at least five years, in part because researchers have set the bar so high: they aim to capture not just the literal, word-forword meaning, but the more subtle subtext in human speech. As Steve McClure, a translation-software analyst for IDC, a technology market-research firm, points out, “Languages are constantly growing and changing,
Ready for Takeoff
he pacific coffee co., Hong Kong’s answer to Starbucks, used to sell java plain and simple. These days, says CEO Robert Naylor, “we sell sanctuary.” A hub for business people on the go, the shops have high-speed wireless Internet connections that allow execs to instant-message their colleagues, update their PDAs or videoconference with clients as they linger over lattes. Far from being a coffee joint, Pacific is more like a pit stop for the mobile office. That’s still a pretty rare find in Asia, where tech resources for road warriors can be mixed at best. While Hong Kong and Singapore are teeming with Wi-Fi hot spots, many hotels and airports in places like Vietnam, Malaysia and China have yet to be outfitted with reliable connections. Nor have many of the high-tech gadgets marketed in Asia really taken off—electronic pocket dictionaries take forever to use and miniature computer keyboards strain fingers. But hold on: the simultaneous development of several technologies may soon be taking the Asian mobile office on the road—at warp speed. In South Korea, for example, the number of Wi-Fi hot spots will rise from 9,000 to 16,000 by next year. As the Wi-Fi bubble expands, relatively simple advances in smart
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Several soon-to-be-unveiled technologies may finally allow the mobile office to get off the ground By Rana Foroohar phones, GPS technology and new translation software will give Asian execs the ability to do business anywhere, at any time. “The coming together of these new technologies will change not only how mobile executives work, but how they think,” says Dan Russell, a senior manager at IBM’s research division. One of the biggest foes of the Asian business traveler is the continent’s great expanses. How do you keep computing on those long-haul flights between Seoul and Sumatra? For several years, lithium ion batteries, which last for about three hours, were the best people could do. If you needed more juice than that, you had to tote a much heavier battery. But companies like Toshiba are now experimenting with new batteries —similar to the fuel cells used in energyefficient cars—that could potentially quadruple the work time of a typical laptop. Even before this, newer, smarter computer chips— like Intel’s Centrino—will help extend battery life by automatically powering down during less complicated tasks.
so they are moving targets for translators.” Of course, some innovations are unexpected. InfoScope, a camera software also developed by IBM, was initially designed to allow business people to take photos of street signs in, say, Mandarin, and translate them into Korean, Japanese or English. But its developers are now thinking bigger. For example, the company is already testing a way for users to take pictures of buildings, then use Global Positioning satellite data to identify them and wirelessly pull up information via online public databases—things like how old a building is, who’s renting it, whether it is in a flood zone and so on. A traveling manager could take pictures of an assembly line and then e-mail them back to the head office to check productivity data for that particular factory. “The potential upside for this is tremendous,” says IBM’s Russell. “There is lots of information out there, but it’s not always where you need it, when you need it.” If one thing is for sure, it’s that the Asian mobile office will soon go way beyond the coffee shop. With ALEXANDRA A. SENO in Hong Kong and MARK RUSSELL in Seoul ILLUSTRATION BY PHILIPPE WEISBECKER