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.
The 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?
I just used a $1.99 app for St. John, USVI, on my two-day jaunt over there is weekend, and it was wonderful. If all travel apps are this good, I will never go back to a guidebook again. It had fantastic zoomable maps, lists of sights and things to do, rental car agencies, beaches, and plenty of dining options. Definitely see using travel apps much more in the future
You forgot one thing: Battery life. There’s your big, fat stampeding elephant in the room.
Otherwise, I broadly agree. But it isn’t being got right at the moment, and there’s a wealth of shit to wander through before you get to half way decent ones. The guide book producers, certainly, have to stop thinking about how to convert the guide book content to an app/ ebook and start thinking how to create the right app/ ebook. And then send people out to research it properly with that formula in mind.
It’s the difference between adapting a pair of trousers for hot weather and going out in shorts.
So apps will funnel ever more people ever more efficiently down mainstream? Yay for the rest then…
@David – Astute observation about how many guidebook publishers rushed out their apps, which ranged from passable to abysmal. However, I’d argue the battery life point. When I took my Android to Tuscany last year, I used it all day long as a note-taking device – daringly left the Palm Pilot at home for the first time since 2005. It was effectively on for hours each day while I did my research and I only ran down the battery once before the end of the day in over 2.5 weeks. I think part of the reason it performed so well because I had it in ‘Airplane Mode’, so all those other processes that usually run down a phone battery were disabled. Which is probably the same experience/performance other people will have when using a travel app on their smartphones while abroad. But also, I think, Androids have better battery life – for now. But yes, there’s another area where we’ll need to see improvement before apps really take over the market.
I was just in Jordan (updating a guidebook, funnily enough, but that’s another story). Down in the desert, I was invited into someone’s tent. There was a whole thing going on, but then he wanted me to take a picture. So I got my phone out, took a snap, put it back in my pocket. In that time, one grain of sand got in between my phone and the inside of my pocket, and left a long scratch right down the screen.
Could have been taking a picture, could have been checking my guide app. I’ll change the screen protector. Some day.
I don’t think books are likely to die anytime soon, not for travel, nor for the rest of life. The clever money (that is, mine) is on a split happening between the mass market destinations – and big tourist-friendly cities – which will have mass market apps (and cheap piccy-fliccy guidebooks), and niche/difficult/adventurous/sandy destinations, for which books are still the most effective, best value, clearest, most ergonomic and most popular technology out there.
Welcome to app-writing freedom! I had so much fun writing my Cancun & Isla Mujeres app–finally space to write about the cool stuff there, and add the useful (if boring) photos that would help people navigate. And so gratifying to be able to just add a comment to an app entry if something changes, then make the proper update a few months down the line. It has also been nice to get comments and feedback from users–lots more than I ever get on guidebooks!
It has been odd to see how difficult book publishers have found it to develop apps. Moon tried very briefly, and then actively decided to scrap it. Everyone else is floundering. I’ll be curious to see the Frommer’s results–they’ve been smart with their website so far, so they’re probably in the right mindset already.
Much agreed with Matt on the eventual split on destinations. Paris guidebooks will die. Mongolia ones won’t. Romania’s in the middle…you might be the one to tip it!
And Regina: I think there will be a mainstreaming effect of apps when the big publishers finally get them out. But the great thing (I like to think) about the more indie travel apps (mine is with Sutro as well) is that they’re distinctly not mainstream. It would take a very jaded travel writer to parrot the same Top 10 lists they’ve had to write in guidebooks for years when presented with the opportunity to devise their own apps.
And Matthew, related to your blog gripe about collecting extraneous info for guidebooks: the great thing about apps is you _don’t_ have to have _all_ the info for every listing. There’s a template, sure, but if it makes sense to just give a map location and a general “sometimes it’s open, sometimes it’s not” explanation of hours, you can. It makes me crazy that book publishers floundering in the app world are going into it with such a rigid mindset.
@Matthew/Zora – Thanks for the comments. Books will be around for, well, at least while we’re all still alive. But I think the dominance shift, that’s gonna happen soon. In the meantime, there’s so much room for improvement with apps. I think Sutro and others really have a chance to establish a permanent foothold while everyone else is rushing out slapped together crap and figuring out the new platform. If the big guidebook publishers don’t get their acts together soon, they may find themselves hopelessly behind in 2-3 years.
You had me at “100% offline app functionality.”
Maybe I am the cheapest world traveler, but as soon as I board the plane “data while roaming” goes into the upright, locked, and off position. The only connectivity my Blackberry gets fed is at the nearest wifi feeding station.
Three items I did not notice get mentioned:
I am an unabashed map lover. Guidebook or smart phone app, I still want a full-sized map to see the big picture.
Viewing content on an Android or iPhone is bad enough. On a Blackberry, it is downright a pain in the eyeballs, esp. for us old farts.
Finally, if you ever get stuck with your pants down sans toilet paper, try using your smart phone travel app, “100% offline app functionality,” or not.
Me, I rather be sitting there with Rick Steve’s on my lap.
Uhmmm, nope. Not for me, I still find guidebooks more detailed and informative and easier to use!