The sky is not the limit: iPad, Hulu and in-flight wi-fi forever change flying experience

A bunch of triangulating developments including the iPad boom, brand new services like Hulu Plus, and a surge in wireless Internet access on airlines are about to profoundly change the flying experience.

In-flight movies? Soon to be as common as pay phones.

Airport book stores? Toast.

Before you know it, only stubborn geriatric book-lovers will put up with carrying a five-pound copy of The Lost Symbol onto an airliner.

Freedom from hearing the loud-talker behind you make phone call after phone call on a cross-country flight? Disappearing.

Look at the technology pieces that are coming together to set up a major shift. For starters, there’s the explosion of mobile devices with screens big enough so users can watch a movie or read a book without feeling like they’re looking through the wrong end of a telescope.

It all starts with the iPad

The most buzz-generating of these is, of course, the iPad, which is already in the hands of more than 2 million people. Further, Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) and others are coming out with iPad competitors. Meanwhile smart phones like the iPhone 4 and HTC (2498.TW) Evo 4G sport pretty decent-size screens. All of these devices, importantly, connect to the web via either cell phone networks or wi-fi. Now, pair that trend with the sudden surge of in-flight wi-fi. Delta (DAL) recently said it passed installing wi-fi on 500 airliners, adding that it’s been converting 1.5 planes a day since 2008. By year-end, more than 2,000 U.S.-based planes are expected to have wi-fi, while carriers globally keep adding the service, too.

Consumers no longer up in the air about in-flight wi-fi

Think in-flight wi-fi is only for the serious businessman or teenagers who would rather have the plane lose oxygen than get cut off from Facebook? At the moment, most in-flight wi-fi costs $5 to $13, and only 10% of passengers seem willing to pay for it, according to onboard wi-fi provider Row 44. But competition and potential deals with sponsors – who could use the connection to advertise to a captive, upscale audience – are expected to drive down the price of wi-fi on planes to free within a few years.

New services will help convince passengers that they want to hold an iPad connected to wi-fi while scrunched into their coach seats. Hulu Plus, introduced last week, offers a smorgasbord of full-length TV shows. Netflix members can stream any of thousands of movies for free. Within a few years, there will be no reason for an airline to show a single movie to everyone on board on an overhead screen. (Like I want to see Sex In the City 2.) It won’t even make sense to have individual seat-back entertainment. Just give us all wi-fi and let us watch Family Guy on Hulu.

Lease an iPad along with headphones

If you happen to be one of the few who doesn’t board with anything that connect to wi-fi, the airline will rent you a device. JetStar, an Australian airline, plans to experiment with renting iPads to passengers for 10 Australian dollars (about $8.50 US).

Did you board with a battery about to die? Continental is remodeling planes and putting power ports in coach. Look for more of that.

For those who use flights for rare reading time, these trends should make that better, too. Never again worry about what book to bring – or even whether you have a book. If you’ve got an iPad or Kindle or Nook and in-flight wi-fi, buy a book on board and dive in. Why would you ever set foot in an airport book store again?

Now we need an app for annoying yammerers

Although, for those who use flights for reading time – one of the pleasures is the relative lack of distractions on a plane. That, too, could become a thing of the past. More wi-fi and more devices on planes means more people will be able to use Skype to place calls while 30,000 feet over Kansas.

It’ll be lovely to have type-A executives yammering on about “biz dev” and “at the end of the day” for five hours straight. Hopefully Bose will quickly get around to inventing conversation-cancelling headphones.

The sky is no longer the limit.

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