That's what SeaMobile, the industry's premier supplier of onboard communications options, is aiming for with this week's unveiling of a new portal for onboard Internet cafes that's designed to offer just-like-home connectivity.
First up: Sometime in April aboard Carnival Liberty and Carnival Valor, your Internet experience will take on a new look. Carnival, the first line to buy in, has a new portal (the main screen that comes up when you sign on). In this case, the custom designed page is meant to offer easy access to the key sites that most folks visit while at sea. This is important to anyone who's paying 50 - 75 cents per minute on ships' slower-than-at-home connections.
In this case, the new portal is divided into six sections. One offers listings of what SeaMobile's Michelle Saro, the project's leader, calls "lightweight" sites -- Google's news, a narrowband version of ESPN, and a link to the mega shopping aggregator Mpire.com. Lightweight is important because these sites are pretty plain and simple and, lacking glitzy features, means they'll pull up quickly. We're definitely, Saro told Cruise Critic yesterday, "working with a lack of bandwidth."
Another cool innovation on the portal is a partnership with PhotoWorks that enables travelers to compile elements for a personal photo album of the trip while they're cruising. This feature gives instruction on uploading, editing and enhancing digital photos, allows you to incorporate commentary, and offers space for professional ship photos.
While we applaud the areas that offer distinctive services or quicker access links, there are some head-scratching concepts here.
One potentially promising -- but at this point disappointing -- feature is one that tracks your own cruise, offering itinerary information on shopping, shore excursions, and port dining. What doesn't work -- in our minds -- is that the information that is offered here is supplied by the cruise lines. It's the same exact stuff -- which requires stores and attractions to pay to be included -- that is put on your bed with your Carnival Capers each night at turndown. Why would you spend 50-plus cents a minute accessing that online? Though it must be noted that one nifty facet of the feature is a satellite tracking system that loads each days info into the portal so, if there is an unexpected change in itinerary, the site will reflect that.
We definitely blanched when we noticed that another feature enables users to easily link into the cruise line's own Web site. Why? Because with this setup, instead of having access to this information for free in Internet cafes onboard (at least typically), now you're paying to access it. The "free" feature is still available on cafe screens on the test ships but beware ....
Passengers pay the usual per-minute rates as set by the cruise lines; there is no additional charge to access the new portal as these Carnival ships roll out. Feature-wise, SeaMobile will be working with Carnival to monitor feedback and tweak where necessary -- so if you use the system, let your comments be heard!
The system's actually been purchased by Carnival Corporation so you could see custom created portals for other lines in the family, such as Holland America or Seabourn not to mention the rest of the Carnival fleet. Roll-out dates beyond those for Carnival Liberty and Carnival Valor are not available yet, however.