Dubai: A Super-Luxe Take On Tech For Microsoft's Windows 8 Launch

A mural of the Dubai skyline was etched into the wall. A basket of luxurious toiletries had been placed in the corner. Fluffy towels nestled inside cupboards, as did a hair dryer. Outside the room two attendants waited, whose job was to clean it as soon as the occupant left. "This is bigger than my first apartment," one person murmured.

We were all standing inside the shower room... Of an Emirates A380-800. At about 35,000 feet or so.

Normally, airlines that want to show off a new piece of technology to the tech press might sponsor a flight from, say, Oakland to Seattle. For Emirates, the company partnered with Microsoft as one of the first companies to launch a customer service app running on Windows 8 (see Microsoft Aims Dubai Launch Of Windows 8 At Businesses - Emirates Goes First). Unfortunately, the only routes the airline flies to the United States godirect to Dubai. So, well, off I went halfway around the world.

(Welcome to the disclosure portion of this story: for this story, Emirates flew this reporter to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to cover both the app as well as the Middle-Eastern launch of Windows 8. It also paid for a hotel room and meals, some of which it split with Microsoft. We'll be covering the app itself as well as the Windows 8 launch separately.)

The Emirates lounge in New York was richly appointed - self-service bar, a buffet of snacks and desserts, televisions and couches. But the first hint that my experience might be a trifle different than most was the sudden entrance of a police officer, several uniformed security members and quiet murmurs that announced the presence of U.N. Sec. General Ban-Ki Moon. He was on my flight, but I would not see him again for the remainder of the trip.

Technology Cuts Across Class

The 80 business-class passengers have the option of boarding directly from the airport lounge; 14 first-class passengers may do the same. In doing so, however, the first-class passengers sidestep what Emirates calls the Grand Staircase: a stair, climbing from economy class to the upper echelons of airborne luxury. A velvet rope blocks entry. At the top, a shimmering waterfall and imitation candles transform into a self-service bar after takeoff.

First class offers at least the illusion of privacy; partitions may be closed, so that a seated passenger sees nothing but four walls and the ceiling far above. Business class seats take up the room of at least three economy-class seats, with space for a full 6'5" lie-flat bed, including a mattress. In the rear, there's a wider space, with the seat plus a side table with a small selection of (non-alcoholic) drinks, reading light, power seat controls and a small detachable tablet.

Yes, a tablet.

Onboard the A380-800 is what Emirates calls the ICE system (Information, Communication, Entertainment), offering up to 1,400 "channels" of entertainment. Each "channel" represents a movie, a TV show (which can include multiple episodes), an album or boxed set, or a game.

Gone are the days in which a traveler had to make do with two or three airline-selected movies, some insipid TV shows and a lame documentary. Economy, business, and first-class all get access to the same entertainment options, powered by several servers mounted in the bottom of the plane with fiber run throughout the aircraft, said Patrick Brannelly, vice president of corporate communications, product, publishing, and events, from the business-class lounge in-flight. 

Back to the tablet. For some inexplicable reason, Emirates has not one, but three ways of controlling the onboard communications system: a touch screen display (which worked poorly), a wired phone that doubled as a keyboard and game controller and a touchscreen tablet controller, which can sync with each seat just by placing it in its dock. 

ICE also includes the ability to connect a USB device to view photos (and that's all, unfortunately) or view real-time footage from several external cameras mounted on the airplane. (A night takeoff and landing made this largely irrelevant, sadly.)

Yes, Emirates paid for my ticket. Yes, those tickets are insanely expensive. But if you have the means, business class on Emirates is pretty darn cushy.

On To Dubai

Dubai is Las Vegas, writ an almost unimaginable scale. From the air, the similarities are obvious: the daring architecture, whose centerpiece, the Burj Khalifa, twists more than a half mile into the air. In front of my hotel, 18 lanes (including service roads) sped traffic to its destination. Vast metro stations crisscross the landscape, apparently barely used. 

On the expressway to one of the Palm Islands, a mile or so of walls hide the summer palace of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai. On the other side of the road, the superstructure of the indoor ski hill can be seen. The Palm Island has its own monorail, but lacks a proper shopping mall, so one is under construction. Until it's completion, shoppers are forced to drive 15 minutes to the Mall of the Emirates, the world's second largest. (The largest, the Dubai Mall, is next to the Burj Khalifa.)

Multi-Culti In The Desert?

Before we visited, we received a strict briefing document: no swearing. No pointing. No showing the bottom of one's feet; that's insulting. Wear modest dress; no shorts or flipflops. Women should avoid showing the shoulders or arms.

Yet within five minutes of entering Dubai, we passed a nightclub, where a model teetered down the entranceway in two-inch heels. Her miniskirt had about the same coverage. 

We found out later that Muslims are the minority, and the "Invisibles," the native Emirati who actually run the place, are rarely seen. Meanwhile, some of the other inhabitants - including the mainly Indian "party girls" - can be seen out looking for a good time.

Windows 8 Arrives In Dubai

The next morning was the day of the Windows 8 launch in Dubai. Microsoft didn't really characterize it as a "launch," of course, since the product had already been out for two weeks in the United States. But it seems that European journalists don't always have the opportunity to actually handle the products they cover, so for at least one Czech business writer, this would be the first opportunity to actually use Microsoft's Surface tablet.

Like so much of our stay, the event would be centered on the Burj Kahlifa. We took a shuttle over to the tower, which stands alone, the centerpiece of the neighborhood. At the base stands a small lake, where at night fountains shoot water several stories in the air. It appears to be a carbon copy of the fountains outside of Vegas' Bellagio, and indeed we we were told that the same company had designed both.

For some inexplicable yet incredible reason, the press conference was to be held on the 142nd through 144th floors, which were connected internally by stairways, giving it the impression of three decks on some mammoth motor yacht. The elevator climbed steadily and smoothly until we arrived.

At 145 stories (we would later find out the Burj Khalifa's architects inexplicalbly do not offically reveal the number of stories within the tower) we all rushed to the windows. At that height, my mind translated "OMG scary" into "Ah, I'm in a plane."

Erwin Visser, the director for Microsoft's commercial business, a surprisingly earnest man who I had met on the plane, gave the business case for Windows 8, followed by Peter Scurry, who offered a rather blunt assessment of the older Panasonic Toughbooks (they all sucked, basically) and some other presentations. Compared to my experiences at Microsoft events in the U.S., there was a pleasing increase in the candidness of on-the-record comments.

We then found out we could actually walk out on the viewing deck of the Burj. I was anticipating some sort of Empire State Building viewing deck, surrounded by bars and the little telescopes you insert quarters into. Instead we were ushered through a sort of keycard-protected airlock onto someone's back porch, 140-odd stories up. There were a few deck chairs scattered about, with ashtrays in case someone chose to smoke. An awning shaded the sun. And the floor, a wooden affair that creaked alarmingly, was about the twice the size of a suburban back patio.

And as far as safety was concerned? Just a deck rail, about waist height. And that's it. Jason Rabinowitz, a freelance travel reporter who flew in on the same flight and I walked over to the edge and looked out. At that height, the ground almost palpably sucks you down. 

The Royalty Factor

As we waited for the event to start, we were hastily told that Dubai royalty were expected to appear, and instructed on how to behave: stand when they stand, don't shake hands, no showing the soles of your feet, don't leave the room before they do. 

Unfortunately, the whole affair was a rather large letdown. Yes, Dubai royalty showed up: a serious, bearded man who shook hands with some of the guests. Most of the audience stood as he entered, bouncing up and down in some sort of mass aerobic exercise as the prince or whatever he was stood and sat down, repeatedly. After about the third time, however, the majority of the audience bored of this and just remained seated. One highlight was a Dubai woman from the UAE's ministry of education who had worked in IT in the United States for several years and had returned home to spearhead its e-education initiatives. She was warmly applauded. 

When His Highness unexpectedly decided to leave in the middle of the presentation, demonstrating a keen news sense, it caused a slight panic. Three aides in front of us, stood, exchanged worried comments, and literally ran out of the room to catch up.

Yes, that price is in U.S. dollars! Yes, that price is in U.S. dollars! Low-Tech Launch For Windows 8

The launch itself was a decidedly low-tech affair. Customers and invited guests played with the devices on display, but I did not see cameraphones being used to snap pictures for Facebook and Twitter. Those that brought their phones used them for - gasp - making calls, not surfing the Web. In fact, only the foreign journalists seemed obssessed with finding free Wi-Fi, which came with the hotel as well as the Burj and other locations. 

Here, Google shined. Not only did Google know which flight I took, it popped up a Google Now card letting me know its status. While I was in Dubai, various Google Now cards offered to translate Arabic, pointed out local points of interest, and performed currency conversions. 

The next day we took a look at the Emirates network center, a luxuriously appointed room where consoles mounted in thick wood tracked the progress of every Emirates flight around the world. (See Phone An Aircraft Engine In Mid-Flight? No Problem). We then toured the city, marveling at the vast expanse of wealth. The Dubai airport is the only spot I've ever seen that offers the Vertu phones, which cost $20,000 a piece and up, in a kiosk!

And that was pretty much that, as far as technology was concerned.

My 777 flight home was more traditional; in business class, the seats fit in a 2-3-2 configuration. Emirates provides water, but not the stocked minibar. The seats "fold flat" in much the same manner as they do A380, and the ICE system is the same. But perhaps the biggest testament is that I was so exhausted that I did something I'm rarely able to do on an airplane: sleep.