Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Hello? Great Wall Calling

As you read this, we will be returning from a trip to China celebrating my wife's and my 25th wedding anniversary.

Of course, a trip abroad is always an opportunity to try out some new technology, which we were able to do.

Despite something in our Beijing hotel causing two power bricks for my laptop computer to fry themselves (and having to find replacements), technical issues have been fine.

Of particular fun was sharing some of our experiences with one of my brothers in California. Bill and his wife, Johanna, have two children, both under 12. We thought they'd enjoy seeing the Great Wall when we're in Beijing.

I rented a portable WiFi Internet device for the duration of our trip. These devices essentially put a WiFi hotspot in your pocket while connecting to the 3G cellular service. They're available from most of the mobile companies such as AT&T, Verizon and Sprint, although I rented mine from a Chinese company that offers services to travelers.

Along with this device, I brought our iPad 2 which supports Facetime, a video chatting service, not unlike Skype, although Facetime only works over WiFi on an iPad or iPhone.

We tried Facetime from our home in Westport prior to our departure, then tried it again as we were driving out of Beijing. This test allowed my niece and nephew to see the Olympic "Bird's Nest" stadium as we were leaving town.

When we arrived at the Great Wall, I wondered what sort of cellular service we would have. I was quite pleased when the WiFi device sported five full signal bars, despite us being out in the countryside.

While standing on the Wall, I powered up the iPad and tapped my brother's name in Facetime. About 20 seconds later, our niece and nephew's faces appeared on the screen.

The general cacophony of the people on the wall meant we couldn't hear what my niece and nephew were saying, but we could see them smiling broadly and we were able to show them the Great Wall and surroundings. They later told us they were able to hear us clearly and it ended up being a great experience for both them and us.

It was also funny to see people around us trying to figure out what we were doing. I was holding up and talking to this black tablet thing. iPads are not unknown here. There are billboards advertising them. But they are not nearly as popular as one would see, say, on a Metro-North train.

We intend on sharing some of our other experiences with them as we continue our tour, including seeing the Terra Cotta warriors, Li valley and Hong Kong.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 24 August 2011.

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