Phoning it in

Travel and the iPhone

On June 29, 2007, the first generation iPhone made its way into consumers' hands. In the 10 years since, the smartphone has become ubiquitous, changing the way everything from communication to how commerce takes place today.

Travel, too, has experienced a sea change since the iPhone's introduction. From increased efficiency in the way people travel to technology enabling the industry, especially agents, to work from virtually anywhere in the world on powerful, connected pocket computers, the landscape is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

"It's changed everything, really, about travel -- everything," Karen Yeates, Signature Travel Network's executive vice president of information technologies, said of the iPhone. "It has changed how we travel; what we travel with; how we manage things while we travel and what we manage; how we interact with other people we're traveling with; how we interact with our own families back home. It's changed everything about the industry."


Why the iPhone?

Apple's version of the cellular telephone wasn't the first smartphone on the market available to consumers. In fact, devices that offered cellular capabilities alongside elements first introduced on personal digital assistants (PDAs) emerged in the mid-1990s.

One particularly popular PDA that would be integrated with cellular capabilities was made by Palm, whose devices like the PalmPilot (which did not have cellular abilities) were widely used since their 1996 introduction. 

The Palm operating system powered several types of smartphones, including the Treo, which could also be purchased with a version of the Windows operating system. But the reigning king of smartphones when the iPhone was introduced was the BlackBerry, which had quickly become a favorite email and PDA tool for business travelers.

However, the iPhone was arguably the first smartphone that caught the fancy of the general public, ushering in a new era of communication as its fame and sales soared. Norm Rose, senior technology and corporate market analyst at Phocuswright, attributed that device's popularity to the iPhone's user experience and design.

"All the iPhone did is [Apple] put it in a beautiful design, and they increased the user experience from what a Palm was," he said. "They didn't invent the smartphone."

Nonetheless, that user experience was key, Rose said. Interestingly, he said, he was working on mobile research reports and papers as early as the mid-2000s. Conceptually, he understood smartphones, but he didn't really "get it" until he got an iPhone.

"Getting the iPhone and understanding how, basically, you have the internet in your hand in a much more seamless way was much more eye-opening to me, and I think that was probably a very common reaction around that time," he said.

A 'liberating, empowering' device

The iPhone brought with it the era of instantly available information for travelers.

Henry Harteveldt, industry analyst and founder of Atmosphere Research Group, said the iPhone and subsequent smartphones have both "liberated" and "empowered" consumers at every touch point in their travels.

For example, trips can be researched and booked on mobile phones. The phones can be used to check in to flights and hotels. Once at a destination, they can aid in both wayfinding and sharing information, photos and video on social media.

"There's hardly any part of the travel experience that hasn't been touched by the mobile revolution," he said.

The iPhone also moved travel toward a more paperless system, according to Mark McSpadden, director of technology for Sabre Labs.

"It is the technology that has moved the traveler from a paper-based system into a digital system," he said. "Cutting-edge technology when the iPhone came out for the traveler was the manila folder with a lot of printouts in it."

The iPhone has become that folder, with the capability to replace paper boarding passes, reservation information and itineraries with digital versions. Those aren't the only things the iPhone has replaced, though.

Signature's Yeates listed some of the things the iPhone has rendered unnecessary in travel in many cases, especially from a consumer perspective: a laptop, a point-and-shoot camera, a video camera, a GPS device for a rental car, an MP3 player to listen to music and a device for watching television shows or movies. People can travel lighter and more efficiently than ever before by using their smartphones.

The iPhone also gives travelers a level of flexibility they did not have before.

"Not only has it made us more mobile, obviously, and easier to travel, but people expect to be able to make their reservations and changes on their reservations on the fly," Yeates said, whether it's for hotels, car rentals or flights. "You can do this literally from your phone now, and it's not a problem."

That planning often included things like airport-to-hotel transfers and in-destination activities, giving rise to new, app-based businesses ranging from Uber to Yelp, Airbnb and Hoteltonight.

"The big change is that [the iPhone] has allowed you to do all of this stuff later in the journey, where it's not uncommon to land in a city now without even a hotel [reservation]," he said.

Travel by its very nature disconnects travelers from the comforts of home and brings with it change and uncertainty, whether that's in the form of flight cancellations, traffic or something else entirely, according to Evan Konwiser, vice president, digital traveler, American Express Global Business Travel.

Evan Konwiser
Evan Konwiser

"The launch of the iPhone [and the smartphone era more broadly] fundamentally changed this experience by creating an always-on connection layer providing support, assistance and entertainment throughout the journey," he said. "We cannot overestimate the impact this has had, and will continue to have, on our business as it gets at the very heart of the customers we serve."

Harteveldt agreed that the experience of traveling has been greatly enhanced by the iPhone.

"When you really think about this, mobile, I think, has been served as -- and again, credit to the iPhone -- a catalyst for a much richer, much greater and much more useful engagement in digital travel, both between the consumer and the travel organization as well as from the travel organization to the consumer," he said.

An always-connected industry

The iPhone has also changed the travel industry itself. Consortia and hosts are frequently employing mobile-first strategies, ensuring that the websites, tools and products they offer agents are able to be used on small smartphone screens.

Many companies have added entire mobile divisions to keep up with the technology, and much as the iPhone has changed the way consumers travel, it has also changed the way executives and agents travel and work.

John Lovell, president of Travel Leaders Network and Leisure Group, said the iPhone has enabled him to be more productive when he's traveling. It has also offered his network's agents an enhanced communication platform with their clients, whether or not one or both parties are traveling.

"A consumer, for the most part, wants to talk in the method that they want to talk in at a given moment," Lovell said. "It might be the phone one minute, it might be Facebook the next moment, it might be via chat the next moment."

Instant access to those channels via a smartphone helps facilitate those conversations.

"A lot of times people just want that instant access, that instant connection with their client or with their agent, and there are so many forms to do that," Lovell said. "To be a good travel professional, you almost have to be relevant within each section."

In recent years, David Kolner, senior vice president of global member partnerships at Virtuoso, said he has noticed an increasing number of agents who conduct business via messaging services like iMessage and WhatsApp.

"It's just a huge way the clients are communicating in their day-to-day lives" he said. "And they're extending that communication to their adviser, and I'm not surprised by it at all."

Libbie Rice, co-president of Ensemble Travel Group, said that agents today must meet their customers' expectations when it comes to technology, but what technology that is depends on the client; some still want paper itineraries, while others would prefer a mobile version in app form.

"Agencies have to recognize who their client is, because some of them are still going to want documents, and they want that printed piece because they're worried that their phone isn't going to be available, or they don't want to pay the fees or whatever it is," Rice said. "So there is a certain know-your-client piece, and I'm sure a lot of it is somewhat dependent on the age of the client or level of sophistication."

Phocuswright's Rose argued, though, that all agents should take advantage of increased communication with their clients during their trips.

"Historically, travel agents have [said], 'Let me plan your trip for you'," he said. "'Here's all your documents, everything's booked, see you next time.' And I think that what the platform enables is more ongoing communication, whether it's promoting in-destination activities [or] it's just providing on-demand service in the case of disruption. But I think it's extended the life cycle of a traditional travel agent beyond just the booking and ticketing function."

Vicky Garcia, COO and co-owner of Cruise Planners, said access to iPhones has made agents' jobs "easier in many cases because they're more connected." But she acknowledged that those who don't keep up with the technology could find it challenging to deal with.

At the same time, though, agents who might have previously turned down opportunities to travel now have more freedom because they can virtually work "literally anywhere in the world," said Brian Hegarty, vice president of marketing for Travel Leaders Group.

Virtuoso's Kolner agreed.

"The adviser working from the pool in a safari lodge in South Africa is just as common as an adviser sitting at a desktop in Ohio somewhere," he said. "I mean, the mobility that the iPhone has offered the adviser, with so much functionality, has just really allowed advisers to take their job satisfaction to a higher level and also just serve their clients better -- closer to the 24/7 type of service that the clients are probably ultimately looking for."

But greater access to work also comes with a caveat: It becomes harder and harder to truly disconnect and stop working. Traditional 9-to-5 office hours are now largely a thing of the past, Hegarty said, and the verdict is out on whether or not that's a good thing.

"Is instant, nonstop access a good thing? Most of the time," said Taylor Ruecking, director of marketing and technology at the Travel Institute. "Sometimes it's difficult to separate work from home life. Having access to so much communication on the iPhone makes it necessary to pay close attention to time management."

Taylor Ruecking
Taylor Ruecking

The iPhone and smartphones that followed it have also had an impact on agent education or, more specifically, the way educational content is delivered, Ruecking said.

"In responding to a shift in student learning patterns and industry trends, we are creating and delivering more online, on-demand types of learning, much of which is based on video and bite-size content for greater retention," he said. "This has made it easier to layer education by using different multilevel content and methods that meet the different learning styles. It is no longer one size fits all."

Accessing educational courses via smartphones has come into prominence, Ruecking said, especially with many students' need to access courses anytime and anywhere.

In Harteveldt's mind, the iPhone and subsequent smartphones have given agents a level technological playing field.

"This is something that democratizes technology for the travel agencies just as the [customer relationship systems] did starting in the 1970s and the internet has done," he said. "Mobile has reached the point where it is affordable, and travel agents can use this to improve their business. They can use it to stay more in touch with their customers. They can use it for self-promotion. ... The agent is able to better manage time and sell more efficiently."

What if the iPhone never happened?

The late Steve Jobs, co-founder and CEO of Apple, introduced the iPhone at Macworld in 2007. He explained it as a combination of three products: "a widescreen iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone and a breakthrough internet communications device."

All of that was packaged into a sleek design that, unlike other smartphones of the time, featured very few buttons; instead, it was largely controlled via a touch screen. Later, Apple would add its App Store and open up the phone to third-party developers, another major milestone in the device's history.

But if Apple had never brought the iPhone to market, would another smartphone have risen into prominence the same way? It's a crystal ball question, but the consensus among experts is largely that, yes, while the iPhone paved the way for modern smartphones, the mobile landscape today would not look exponentially different if Apple's version had never been introduced.

"If Apple hadn't invented the iPhone, I'm sure someone else would have invented a smartphone," Harteveldt said. "Whether that organization would have been Google or perhaps BlackBerry or somebody else, we don't know. The question is, would they have developed a device that was not only as elegant in design as the iPhone and intuitive in terms of the user interface but with the capabilities mainly being adding WiFi and then the whole app-based universe behind it?"

In addition to design and user experience, the App Store concept was another home run for Apple, Harteveldt said. Combining the phone and the apps made it stand out, especially because of Apple's vetting process on third-party apps ensuring they were usable, functional and reliable.

"The whole nature of what Apple launched was, 'There's an app for that,'" he pointed out.

McSpadden agreed that the App Store concept was a crucial part of Apple's success, one that was not included in the earliest iteration of the iPhone.

The App Store launched in 2008, one day before iPhone's second generation device, iPhone 3G, was released to the public. While the original iPhone included apps, they were all Apple native without the ability to download more.

The App Store's debut "really transforms the way that people start to think about software distribution, building software, getting it in front of people," McSpadden said. "I don't know that one would have happened [without Apple and iPhone]."

Its debut also opened the floodgates to apps developed by travel suppliers. And many of those apps were transformative. For many travelers, paper boarding passes became a thing of the past. Phones could unlock rental cars and hotel rooms. Cruisers could chat with fellow passengers, view the day's shipboard activities and make restaurant reservations. Walt Disney World guests could book times to visit attractions with minimal lines.

Rose agreed that Apple drove the App Store concept, now widely used by others, but he said speculating on whether or not a similar model would have emerged is difficult. Still, he believes someone else would have released a smartphone of the caliber of iPhone.

Signature's Yeates agreed.

"People were pushing to get to this more mobile situation where the phone was becoming a little computer in your hand," she said. Regardless of Apple, "it was already moving there."

A wearable future

Since the iPhone first debuted a decade ago, the field of mobile technology continues to grow by leaps and bounds, and more developments are expected in the coming decade.

Things like augmented reality and virtual reality will become standard on mobile devices, Yeates predicted. In the coming years, smartphones will likely get thinner, lighter and more portable, though Yeates believes developers have found a "sweet spot" as far as screen size. 

The phones themselves could also see more radical changes, such as technology that enables users to project phones onto their bodies -- like on an arm -- potentially negating the need for a large device at all. Yeates pointed to virtual keyboards, which use similar technology. While they are not perfect compared with traditional keyboards, they are available on the market, she said, and that kind of technology will likely continue to improve.

A hardwareless future utilizing mixed reality is also something Rose is keeping his eye on.

"We may have you just look down and you have a virtual phone, we have a virtual television, and it's the same experience," he said.

Norm Rose
Norm Rose

In the near term, though, Rose agreed with Yeates that augmented reality will probably become a more standard feature in smartphones.

Just as importantly, though, Rose said that the smartphone world is "moving from a search metaphor to a bring metaphor," where a digital assistant or chatbot will filter information and present the results to a user, instead of that user actively searching for information on his or her phone.

"It's less information being filtered through some type of digital assistant," Rose said. "And that changes it, so rather than taking out your phone and searching, you just ask a question and they bring you information," Rose said. "I think it's moving toward that environment pretty quickly."

Harteveldt posited that within the next 10 years, smartphones could start to look more like "a roll of Saran Wrap" than their current form factors. Emerging technologies are bringing with them the possibility of thinner, pliable devices that could be rolled up and interact with wearable devices more and more.

Wearables, or smart devices worn on the body, are already on their way to augmenting the mobile experience, whether they are watches or even smart headphones like Apple's Bluetooth-connected AirPods, which enable Siri interactions, McSpadden said.

Much in the way a user's desktop or laptop computer was once the hub of their digital lives, giving them a place to backup their phone, MP3 player and other devices, he said, the smartphone has taken over that hub role thanks to cloud computing and storage.

"There will be evolutions on the phone itself for sure," McSpadden said, "but I think the next big leaps are happening in this connectivity around the phone and how it plays as a hub for other devices."