Online Reporting from a Ship at Sea was Not an Easy Task in 1998

| June 5, 2009

It wasn't always easy to "blog" live from a cruise. In fact, at one time there was no such thing as a "blog."

The phrase "virtual cruise" is common vernacular now for online reporting from aboard a ship, but I was in the room when the phrase was invented. Furthermore, I can also say I was the first to conceive of an Internet-style virtual cruise along with the founding partner in CruiseMates, Anne Campbell.

At the time, Anne was the editor of Cruise Critic, today a cruise information web site for consumers, but at the time only available to AOL subscribers.

Anne and I were scheduled to sail on the Grand Princess' inaugural cruise in May 1998 from Istanbul to Barcelona, and I had an intriguing idea: Why not use cell phone technology to connect to AOL worldwide through a cell-phone modem and a laptop? That way we could send pictures and editorial copy to the AOL Cruise Critic site directly from the ship while it was at sea.

Keeping a daily travel journal is hardly new. Herodotus was one of the world's first travel writers, writing accounts about the Black Sea region, Babylon, Phoenicia, and Egypt. Mark Twain was perhaps the first cruise journalist. "The Innocents Abroad," his best-selling book at 70,000 copies, is a true account of a voyage on a chartered ship, Quaker City. Twain led a group of religious pilgrims through the Mediterranean and eventually to the Holy Land.

But their accounts were published well after the journey was completed. Our idea was to send text and pictures from a cruise ship at sea during the actual voyage.

We chose a cell phone modem because using shipboard telephones used to cost more than $10 per minute. I also knew that European cell phone technology was the same from Istanbul to Barcelona, unified by a single GSM standard that also happened to be digital. I had been to Europe before and I had seen officers using their cell phones at sea, in the Aegean at least, so I figured the coverage must be pretty good.

It took me several months to put all the pieces together; getting a European cell phone in the U.S. used to be a big challenge. I also needed a compatible PCMCIA modem, a European cell phone account and a digital camera. All these technologies were cutting edge back in 1998.

These separate items would have cost about $2,000 altogether. The modem and camera were both so new they were actually prototypes. But I managed to get sponsorships from each of the manufacturers at least long enough to see if I could make my idea work.

Even as we sailed away from Istanbul with all this assembled equipment, I still wasn't sure. To cover our bases, we had only told the people back at Cruise Critic that we were going to try this. If it worked, great; but if not, we wouldn't even mention it to the readers.

When we were about 200 yards out to sea, I took a picture of the ship sailing away from the dock on the 1.2-megapixel Fuji digital camera, which at the time cost more than $800. I connected my Ericsson cell phone to my Euro-GSM Xircom modem and inserted it into the PCMCIA slot on my Toshiba laptop. I told the connection manager on my laptop to dial the 11-digit phone number for AOL Istanbul. We heard it ringing, then the modem handshake signal. As we watched our AOL screen saying "checking username and password," it seemed to take forever, but then it said "connecting at 1200 kbps" and when my laptop blurted out "Welcome" in the familiar AOL voice, we jumped for joy. We were connected to AOL at sea through a laptop modem dialed into Istanbul.

Continue Article >> Online Reporting from Ship at Sea Not an Easy Task in 1998 (Part 2)

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