Will travel apps replace guidebooks?

The answer, of course, is “duh!”

(I’d also accept the Latin “Derrr!!”)

It’s inevitable. And travel apps will likely be all the rage until they invent the retina display and cerebral interface with a global 28G data connection to the Knowledge Cloud that will download information to our brains like the freaking Matrix and when people meet, instead of shaking hands and small talk, they’ll kung fu fight. Or possibly breakdance fight, I’m not sure. But until that lively day arrives, travel apps are likely going to be our travel information platform of choice.

florence app screen shotThe rapid industry transition to travel apps has been especially heavy on my mind recently, having awesomeified my Florence Explorer app back in March (for iPhone and Android) and having just completed the world’s best (and so far only) Romania travel app, which will hopefully be published by the end of May.

While toiling away on these guides, I’ve thought a lot about the travel app platform and why it might be the thing that once and for all buries printed guidebooks, which people (like me) have been anxiously awaiting since they first laid hands on a Palm Pilot.

With two apps under my belt now, I’ve become intimately familiar with the dynamic, option-rich possibilities that apps provide and how, when done correctly, they’re superior to printed guides on virtually every level. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There’s still much work to be done before apps can claim total dominance. First, let’s look at the positives.

Frequent updates, mean increased accuracy
Guidebook haters LOVE to chirp about how the information in a guidebook, even the day it hits the shelves, is already at least a year old. And with some guidebooks having two, three and even four year life spans, that information admittedly gets pretty stale, especially for destinations that tend to change rapidly. (Thanks a lot Romania.)

Not so with apps. These things can be updated as often as the authors/publishers see fit. With the approval interval at iTunes still being fairly slow – all part of the greater good content-wise, but the lag is still frustrating at times – the updates aren’t as instantaneous as updating web pages, but it’s pretty close. As this article about Inkling and Frommer’s teaming up rightly points out, the relative ease of updates for travel apps mean that even blips like temporary closures of sights can be duly noted, never mind huge stuff like visa rule changes and transport developments.

Convenience and ease-of-use
Even rabid guidebook devotees will admit that packing a paper lump the size and weight of a gold brick into their backpack is a little inconvenient. Never mind the inevitable tears, page obscuring wine spills and the not insubstantial nor inconspicuous effort of hauling that dead weight around town all day and pulling it out for reference. A sexy travel app on a feather-light smartphone eliminates all of these issues. (Except the wine spill ramifications – that stuff ruins everything.)

There’s also the matter of ease-of-use. Book fetishists notwithstanding, few people will reminisce fondly about the days of flicking back and forth through an 800 page guidebook, from text, to maps, to practical matter. Apps, when designed in an intuitive, thoughtful manner (notice I said ‘when’, see below), deliver the information you need far more efficiently.

And did I mention GPS? The days of being lost all the time in maddening places like Berlin, Naples and St Paul are about to be permanently behind us.

Apps cost less. Much less in many cases, particularly if you use the same app for more than one visit over the course of several years. Assuming that you’ve purchased your app from a reputable publisher that doesn’t abandon update duties, that one-time purchase could be worth the price of two or more theoretical guidebook purchases you might have made over that same period depending on the number of times you visit the destination and the intervals between those visits.

Now, for the ‘bad’ and the ‘needs improvement’ categories.

One of the top complaints about travel apps, for the moment, is that they are poorly designed and not intuitive. Even apps published by popular brands, who maybe rushed a little too much to get the product out, suffer these shortcomings.

One of the main reasons I hitched my wagon to Sutro Media was the lavish praise for their design and interface. Also, though this is becoming more and more common, they were one of the first to have 100% offline app functionality, including the oh-so important maps, so people wouldn’t take it on the chin with roaming fees while trying to use the app abroad.

However, outside of Sutro and the encouraging news about this Inkling/Frommer’s collaboration, most travel app designs are still prohibitively sucky (and their maps rudimentary), so for the time being people will probably find that thumbing through a book and/or using a paper map is less confounding.

Quality of content
This is also a huge problem, particularly on the Android Market, where any yahoo that knows how to copy and paste can publish and sully the market with their own travel app. As slow and exasperating as it can sometimes be to publish on iTunes, this is where I have to give them credit. They have been increasingly judicious in travel app approval, meaning their catalog isn’t completely saturated with ad-filled, free and $0.99 apps that were slapped together by some content farm hack in Bangalore who scraped the (unedited, unverified) information from wikitravel and travel websites. Relying on these apps for accurate information is like traveling around with a 47-year-old guidebook, something only a certifiable masochist would do to themselves on purpose.

The number of travel apps out there that were actually researched on the ground by a destination expert are still disconcertingly low, with Sutro and a few others being notable exceptions. (And no, they are not paying me to say that, but they should be.) As the platform develops and becomes more lucrative, one hopes this situation will improve and customers will likewise learn to tell the difference between the shit and the gravy.

So, we’re looking at a tipping point in, I don’t know, two or three years? Maybe? Hopefully?

In the meantime, on a personal note, I have to say that authoring an app is far more liberating and less tedious than guidebook authoring. Issues like word count limits are moot. Convoluted text formatting, out the window. Memorizing all the wrinkles in a 144 page product manual… What product manual? Oh glorious freedom!

Anyone else out there walking into the travel app light? What’re your thoughts?