You May Unfasten Your Seat Belts And Plug In Your P Cs

You're somewhere over the ocean between Los Angeles and Tokyo, finally about to polish off that overdue report for your boss--or perhaps beat your top score of 120 lines in Tetris at last--and the low-battery warning on your portable computer lights up. It's an all-too-familiar scene. New nickel-metal-hydride and lithium-ion batteries are giving notebook computers much longer lives away from power cords--up to five hours--but unless you bring a box of batteries, there's no way you can keep on working, or playing games, indefinitely. At some point, the juice will give out.

To ease the problem, major laptop-computer manufacturers are working with aircraft manufacturers and airlines to give passengers a way to plug in their PCs at their seats. Availability of electricity is no problem, since the engines can easily power the generators. And the seats are already wired for sound and phones, so adding a bit more cabling is no big deal. The issue is not technology but standards. "It's a chicken-and-egg thing," says Safi Qureshey, CEO of computer maker AST Research Inc. "No one wants to make the investment until they're sure that everyone else is on board and the market will be there."

But discussions could soon produce agreement on a variety of key items, including power-cable design and electrical standards, such as plug design, voltage levels, circuit protection, and maximum current draw. So when will you be able to finish your trans-Pacific Tetris tournament? Look for seat-back power connectors to begin making their appearance on select long-haul planes in the next couple of years, says AST's Qureshey.

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