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Sony to put Web browsing in planes

Coming in 1998, the Passport is a Web viewing and entertainment device that slides into an airplane tray table slot or attaches to the facing seat.

Next year, Sony will release a cure for two of the chief plagues of airline travel. Namely, old magazines and distant, ill-lit movie screens.

The Sony Passport, which will make its debut in 1998, is a Web IE 4.0 shakes industry viewing and entertainment device using Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0 that slides into an airplane tray-table slot or attaches to the facing seat, according to Hank Evers, director of marketing for Sony Trans Com, the company's division specializing in airplane entertainment devices.

Connected to a series of multimedia servers tucked in the airplane's storage compartment and also processor boxes located under seats, the Passport viewer will allow passengers to tune in Web sites, movies, Internet channels and other information that is loaded onto the system before take-off. In addition, users can gamble and shop through a credit card slot on the side or make phone calls with an attached phone.

South African Airlines will be the first airline to deploy the device when it begins to feature the Passport on its planes next year, Evers added.

Sony showed a prototype of the device last night at Microsoft's coming out party for Internet Explorer 4.0 in San Francisco. The Passport's screen measures 8.5 inches, and a control panel built into the Passport controls its functions.

The Passport is one of an emerging generation of hardware devices used for increasingly ubiquitous Web viewing. Similarly, a number of companies are currently deploying and developing email kiosks that allow anyone with a smart card to check their email accounts. New types of handheld devices are expected by Comdex in November, according to most analysts.

The Passport system is actually a mini-intranet, explained Evers. A series of hardened servers designed for air travel and running Windows NT form the backbone of the system. These connect to "seat boxes," local computers powered by three K6 microprocessors from Advanced Micro Devices that are located under each row of seats. In turn, the seat boxes connect to the diskless viewing screens.

The scope of entertainment the airlines will offer will vary. "Gambling isn't permitted on flights destined for or leaving the U.S.," Evers noted. And, although the Passport could be used for general computing, it is unlikely anyone will use it to work. It doesn't come with a keyboard, only a control panel.

Of course, not all things will change in the future. Passport use will likely come free in first class, said James Snyder, a Sony marketing manager, but airlines are already devising ways to incorporate pay-per-view options in coach.

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